Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, It’s True – Yellow Face: A Review

Last night at U of T’s Hart House Theatre, we had the wonderful opportunity to see their final production in the 2010-2011 season, Yellow Face, making this the first time we’ve seen all four Hart House productions in one season! A CityGirls first!

Yellow Face is a satirical play by David Henry Hwang which features himself as the protagonist who examines and endlessly questions what race means and how that plays into politics in society and media. It showcases the importance of presenting both fact and fiction and actualizing who we really are.

yellow face
[yel-oh] [feys]

–verb

1. the practice of using Caucasian actors to portray Asian actors by taping up the eyes and yellowing face makeup

2. the systematic bias of surpassing Asians to play Asian roles

As a playwright, Hwang’s plays are written from what he knows and his activism and protests against Hollywood and stage use of yellow face (particularly the casting of Brit Jonathan Pryce in an Asian role in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon) is the base of this play.

In the first act, we see ambitious Hwang (Ben Wong) accidentally cast Caucasian Marcus G. Dahlman (Kristoffer Pedlar) as an Asian in the leading role of his production Face Value. Through a series of comedic scenarios that explore the sensitivities of race, Hwang discovers that Dahlman has no Asian blood at all and tries to cover up his mistake by first convincing Dahlman, and then everyone else, that Dahlman is, in fact, a Jew from Siberia – which is in Asia – and thus, Asian.

Face Value is a bust and closes before opening night and Hwang ultimately fires Dahlman. But Dahlman continues playing his role as an Asian and becomes an activist for Asian rights, which infuriates Hwang and drives him further from his established position in the Asian community.

In act two, we dig deeper into Hwang’s relationship with his father and the Chinese community in America. Hwang’s father and Dahlman, as well as many others in the Asian community, are investigated for suspicion of espionage and Dahlman’s protests begin to expose how the Asian community is being unfairly targeted.

Realizing how ridiculous it is that the government is investigating a Caucasian man, mistaking him for Asian, and how out of control the entire situation has got, Hwang convinces Dahlman to reveal his true identity and break down the investigation. At this point, reality steps out from behind the characters and Hwang speaks without his mask, revealing his own in depth self assessment.

Although this play focuses on the portrayal of Asian characters in film and stage, its core message applies to all minorities. Facing racism and trying to handle ethnic sensitivity is much harder than it sounds; how do you go about asking someone’s heritage? And with the homogenous mixture of cultures in every city, does it even really matter anymore?

Hwang raised a lot of good, thought provoking points about how minorities were treated and are possibly still treated in society. However, the comedic charm, wit and strong characters contradicted the heavy material and made every moment a delight to watch.

With a cast of seven stretching themselves into multiple roles throughout, you have to give them credit for keeping each character in check and lines flowing. The first act had us in stitches, while the second half brought the story to a close and left us wondering and thinking how this really affects us in our daily lives.

Afterall, Hwang said it best, “In the end everything is always about me.”

Yellow Face runs until Sunday March 13, 2011. Ticket Prices: Adult $25.00 Senior $15.00 Student $15.00 Visit Hart House Theatre for tickets.

Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for details on our exciting and unexpected Hart House encounter!

images from Hart House official website

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