Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Nothing is Sacred in David Henry Hwang’s Comedy of Mistaken Racial Identity

YELLOW FACE playwright David Henry Hwang at the Public Theater in New York on January 6, 2008. (Photo by Lia Chang)

YELLOW FACE playwright David Henry Hwang at the Public Theater in New York on January 6, 2008. (Photo by Lia Chang)

Nothing is sacred in David Henry Hwang’s new comedy of mistaken racial identity YELLOW FACE, a stage mockumentary in theatrical form, examining race and ethnicity in America. The play opened at the Public Theater in December, and due to popular demand has been extended twice through January 13, 2008.

Seen through the lens of his alter-ego DHH (Hoon Lee), the story begins in the early 90’s, when David led the protest against the hiring of Jonathan Pryce in the original Broadway production of MISS SAIGON. The playwright pokes fun at himself as an Asian American role model, lays out the backstage politics of the theater world and weaves key touchstone scandals that affected the Asian American community in the 90’s, like the campaign finance scandals known as Donorgate, the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese American nuclear scientist who was accused of treason, and his father being accused of laundering money for the Chinese, most all but forgotten by the mainstream media.

Having lived through the period and being familiar with many of the players, it was fascinating to decipher as David blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

Noah Bean, Francis Jue, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng, Hoon Lee, Lucas Caleb Rooney and Anthony Torn are a stellar ensemble, many of them playing multiple roles in this scathingly funny and smart satire.

David has a special affinity for The Public and considers it to be his artistic home. Exhilarated to be back with his first new play in ten years, YELLOW FACE is playing in Martinson Hall, the same theater where his first play, FOB was produced.

Current projects include writing the libretto for a new opera based on The Fly, David Cronenberg’s 1986 film, with Howard Shore as composer, David Cronenberg directing and Plácido Domingo conducting, set to open in June ’08 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, and the L.A. Opera in Fall ’08. His Bruce Lee/Monkey King inspired musical with martial arts, also in the works, is bound for Broadway in a few years.

On a break between rehearsal and an evening preview performance of YELLOW FACE, David discussed culture collisions, racism, ethnic and Asian American identity, and how music is a key aesthetic in all the mediums he creates for – theater, opera, film, television, and the musical theater.

What is YELLOW FACE about?

DHH: YELLOW FACE is kind of a stage mockumentary in some ways like This is Spinal Tap. It’s a theatrical version of that and a mockumentary, but it combines fictional incidents with actual incidents that took place to a character that’s named after me called DHH. He is an Asian American playwright, he wrote M. BUTTERFLY, was part of a protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp in MISS SAIGON, and then subsequently DHH accidentally casts a white actor as the Asian in the broadway followup to M. BUTTERFLY called FACE VALUE, thinking that the white actor is part Asian. When he finds out that the actor is not, DHH tries to cover this up in order to preserve his reputation as an Asian American role model. That in turn kicks off a bunch of events.

What inspired you to write this play?

DHH: I’ve been thinking about something like this ever since the MISS SAIGON incident and feeling like the way that MISS SAIGON happened, it became kind of – the casting issue, and the issue of non-traditional casting, and how you deal with minorities in casting, and who should be able to play what, is actually kind of a complicated issue. During the MISS SAIGON incident, it devolved so quickly into kind of a media smackdown. It was all just about who’s going to win, it was like a sporting event. It didn’t last that long. For the two weeks or something it was pretty big, kind of culture wars incident.

It was sort of overwhelming to be in the middle of it, but also ever since then I’ve been trying to see if I could find some way to deal with some of these issues of what it means to play race in a more complicated fashion. So I tried with FACE VALUE in 1993 and that didn’t succeed, and not only didn’t it succeed commercially and critically, I really didn’t get to playwright. I needed more time to rewrite it. I think ever since then also I’ve been thinking about, how do you do a comedy of mistaken racial identity? FACE VALUE was more of a traditional farce with people hiding in closets and stuff.

Starting around 2000, Greg Pak put me in Asian Pride Porn ( an infomercial spoof in which David hocks progressive pornography featuring smart Asian women and sexually empowered Asian men. ). It was combination of that and thinking well gee, I could do that. Then I saw Doug Wright’s play, I AM MY OWN WIFE, and Doug put himself into a character in the play. The idea of doing a kind of mockumentary about myself seemed like maybe that was a way I could approach this comedy of mistaken racial identity.

What’s it like to write yourself into a play and see parts of your life happen on stage every night?

DHH: Well you know it’s not that different from what most writers do. Many writers write autobiographical plays. The main difference is that this character is actually named after me and the plot actually intersects with certain events that were covered by the news media, whether it was the MISS SAIGON thing or my father being accused of laundering money for the Chinese. So in a sense, if I wanted to get into stuff like those two incidents, I kind of had to use my real name, or I guess I could have made up an Asian American playwright called Donald Chan or something, but what would be the point in that? And then I found that once I decided I was going to call him David Henry Hwang, in a funny way, it was easier for me to make him a character and to depart from, make him different from me in some ways. I kind of compare it to – a lot of actors talk about it when they have to do a nude scene. At first, the idea is sort of intimidating, but once they actually get out on stage or take off their clothes, they find it very liberating. I found once I named the character DHH, I found it very liberating.

How did you choose Hoon to play you?

DHH: I always kind of had Hoon in mind as I was starting to write this. You know we don’t look alike, but this play wasn’t going to be about that anyway. It wasn’t going to be about trying to do that sort of imitation. I think that because I’d gotten to know Hoon, of course, he was in FLOWER DRUM SONG. And I’d also gotten to know him through the Lark, a play development center in midtown where I do some of my work, develop some of my work. Hoon is also in the acting company-the pool of actors. And I just though, he has the comic chops to be able to do this. And the DHH character was going to be, as I was writing it, kind of ridiculous in a lot of ways. Hoon has the ability to kind of project that and also maintain a kind of fragile dignity.

And casting Kathryn?

DHH: Well Kathryn, when I finished the play, there was a track as it were, the actors in this play, play many different parts, most of them did. So there was one role for a female who plays maybe 30 different parts. I though this would be good for Kathryn. Suffice to say that because my wife is not Asian, and I often write about Asian subjects, it doesn’t come up that often that there’s a part she could do. And then also at this point, we have two kids and our youngest started first grade, so I knew she’d been wanting to get back into it. We’d worked together twice. We met on M. BUTTERFLY. She was in M. BUTTERFLY, and then we did a one-act together in Louisville-the Louisville Humana Festival in ’92 was a 2 hander, that Oskar Eustis, who is now the head of the Public Theater directed. So we all kind of knew each other.

So at one point, I asked her if she wanted to do it. And she wanted to do it.

Working together has actually been sort of great because we’ve been married, it’ll be 13 years in a couple of weeks when we have our anniversary. We’ve been going together for like 18 years, so it’s nice for her to actually see me in a context where I’m actually good at something. As opposed to at home, where you’re like the husband, the dad, you’re always screwing up. So I think its actually been good for the relationship.

How did you choose Francis?

DHH: We’ve known each other since he was in the original Broadway production of BUTTERFLY, and starred in two of the national tours. He read the part of HYH (based on David’s father) in one of the early readings, and I thought he was fantastic, though my initial impression was that he was too young for the part. He then generously agreed to do the Stanford workshop, despite the fact that we’d already cast Tzi Ma to do the role in LA. When Tzi couldn’t commit to follow the show to NY, we were thrilled to go back to Francis, particularly because we had learned that, given the mockdocumentary style of the piece, my earlier concerns about his age were no longer relevant. He has been a treasure to this production, not only in the role of HYH, but also in his chameleon-like ability to brilliantly capture the numerous other characters he’s asked to portray.

Have many Asian American audiences seen it yet?

DHH: We did a whole six week run in Los Angeles this Spring at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center there. At that point a number of West coast Asians saw the show. It s always a little hard for me to get a gauge generally out of people. If they don’t like the show, they’re not going to tell me personally. But certainly the Asians that spoke to me really enjoyed the show.

I think there is some value in recapping a lot of those touchstone events that were very eviseral for us as Asians in particular in the 90’s and the latter half of the 90’s-being the campaign finance scandals known as Donorgate at the time, the persecution of Wen Ho Lee- the Chinese American nuclear scientist who was accused of treason, and then also in this play, something that’s not as well known but fits into that period was my father being accused of laundering money. I felt like they had a big impact on Asian Americans and they’ve kind of been forgotten by the mainstream media.

It’s sort of like- I don’t know how many non Asian audience members when after seeing the play, really remember all that happening. I think people probably remember Wen Ho Lee. Whether or not people remember the campaign finance scandals, I don’t know. And I think it useful to go back now where the status of Asian Americans in this country is not as charged. It’s a calmer time, which by the way, I think may very well heat up again. I believe, will heat up again as the century continues. At the moment it’s relatively calm. And to look at those things, go over them with some kind of distance and see how kind of insidious they were at the time. It’s easy to forget.

Can you talk about having a white guy in the play pretending he is Asian?

DHH: By having Marcus, the white guy who is pretending to be Asian, or involved in this sort of ruse, become a kind of zelig like figure in a lot of these scandals in the late 90’s, I guess I was trying to do a few things. First of all it seemed to me that if you’re going to talk about yellow face, as in a white person playing an Asian person, in order for a white person to really know what it means to be an Asian, he or she has to experience the negative side as well. And that’s what I always find so kind of glib about notions of yellow face-that there’s something kind of fun or amusing or exotic that a white person could experience playing an Asian. But the whole experience includes both the things that are great about being Asian, and the things that are challenging and difficult about being Asian.

So I wanted Marcus to see both sides of that experience. I think it problematizes by having a white guy go through those experiences, it problematizes how we, both how Asians perceive those events and how mainstream audiences perceive those events because I wanted to get at this notion that when something like this does happen, that is when Chinese Americans or any minority group fall under suspicion and become racially profiled, it can happen to anybody. It can happen to the David Henry Hwang character, the Tony award winning playwright gets pulled into it. And it can happen to a guy name Marcus Gee who’s actually a white guy, just because he’s taken a Chinese sounding stage name.

For Asians I think it’s somewhat problematic because it is questionable – how do you feel about this white guy pretending to be Asian, who’s an imposter and who really gets into the experience enough to become an advocate? Does his advocacy in any way mitigate his lie or is his lie the most important thing about him? It’s not like I believe one should be more important than the other, I just think it’s an interesting question to ask.

What did the L.A. audiences ask?

DHH: In L.A. people wanted to ask what’s true and what’s not true. Which is the question that I’m going to duck because part of the method of the play is that you don’t know. And then after that people are curious about- mainstream audiences are curious about how much of the background of the incidents whether its Donorgate or Wen Ho Lee, how much of that is true? Which I will talk about. They vaguely remember it but they can’t quite put their fingers on it. I think all audiences, Asian Americans included, it causes people to think about WHAT IS RACE? And What are these racial categories? And how firm are they? Which is a pretty good area. Something I wanted people to think about.

How do you define race in the context of yellow face?

DHH: In some ways yellow face could probably fall – if we were going to get academic about it, into Post Race Theory. It’s about some of the ways Race is a social construct and that can fall away. For instance the DHH character, he is heavily invested in his identity as a prominent Asian American figure, and as we go through the 2nd act of the play increasingly, that’s all he has, and he’s not doing anything substantial for Asian Americans. He’s just holding onto the shell or the mask of being an Asian American role model.

Sometimes people have asked me in this run in New York-you’re married and you have kids, why did you make the character single? And I think it’s because he is a character and I wanted to create a character-that’s all he had, just his identity as an Asian American. I think those things hopefully make us question that what it means to get stuck in an ethnic identity.

People who are my age, and I’m 50, claiming our identity as Asian American was a really important part of finding out who we are, and at the same time, I think as the decades have gone by and also the way younger generations perceive their Asian American identity, in the 70’s and 80’s, it was like –Oh this Asian American thing was so new, wow, now that I know I’m Asian American, I know who I am. And increasingly you start to learn, no, that doesn’t answer the whole question of identity. It’s an important part but it’s not the whole thing.

The Dong speeches in the play, which are monologues about a minority, a community that live in China, and the fact that their music which is very much associated with their identity, is actually fairly polyglot, it come from the Silk Road, you can hear Eastern European influences in the music, Middle Eastern influences, and so whatever we think of as authentic was once inauthentic, was once something new, was the result of some kind of culture collision.

So culture is constantly changing. And as culture constantly changes, notions of race constantly change, notions of identity constantly change. Everything is an evolution. I wanted to get into that as sort of a, maybe under a Post Race Theory kind of category. At the same time, you have to keep in mind that racism still does exist and that’s part of the function of the Wen Ho Lee sequence, and the sequence with my father. So how do you hold both those things in your head? I felt like that’s the kind of historical moment we’re in that I’m trying to grapple with in this play.

What do you hope audiences will come away with?

DHH: I hope audiences will feel that it’s safe and okay to question their assumptions whatever those assumptions may be. At this point, I feel like when the subject of race comes up, we all sort of know what our positions are and we go to our respective corners. I don’t feel like we’re that open to having a dialogue about it anymore.

One of the things I learned in L.A., we’ll see if it holds true here, in a funny way I came to feel that by making fun of myself, the DHH character screws up, the DHH character makes wrong assumptions about race, he says things that are stereotypical, I think it allows the audience to, as they’re laughing at that, to kind of open up a little and realize it’s okay to make mistakes. I think we’re really afraid to make mistakes, where it comes to questions of race and ethnicity and cultural interaction nowadays. And unfortunately the only thing we can do is continue to have a dialogue to move forward to change things. It is necessarily going to involve making some mistakes.

How has music played an important part in your life and what do you have coming up?

DHH: My mother is a pianist. My sister is a cellist. I grew up playing violin. When I went to college, I learned how to improvise and I became a jazz violinist and I did that for a number of years, was in a band with Philip Gotanda.

While I haven’t ended up pursuing music as a career, music has ended up being a big part of my aesthetic as a playwright. I feel like I’ve always used, going back to FOB, which by the way is in the same theater as YELLOW FACE, music and movement was always a big part of what I do. There’s not much movement in this show in terms of dance, and then at a certain point, I started getting into actual musicals, the two Disney musicals AIDA and TARZAN, and the remake of FLOWER DRUM SONG.

And then I started getting into writing libretti for operas. So I’ve done five or six operas now, and the next one coming up will be an opera of David Cronenberg’s movie, THE FLY. Which is such a crazy idea. I really loved it when the notion came up. I’m writing it with the composer Howard Shore’s probably best known as a film composer for the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and he’s won a couple of Oscars for that.

So I’ve now adapted his work, it’s an interesting reversal since he did the movie version of M. BUTTERFLY. So he adapted my work and I’m adapting his work. And Howard Shore, the composer has also done the scores for most the Cronenberg movies, including,THE FLY and M. BUTTERFLY. We all kind of have worked together in different ways. We’re opening that in Paris in June at the Chatelet and then it goes to the L.A. Opera in the Fall 2008.

I also have a musical project I’ve been working on for a while. A Broadway musical which kind of involves martial arts movement, sort of a Bruce Lee musical and sort of a Monkey King musical. It attempts to kind of conflate the two stories. That’s something I’ve been waiting to do for a while, but I couldn’t really figure out how do you have martial arts movement in any way that’s kind of interesting and theatrical. I didn’t want to put people on wires. And then I saw the work of this Shanghainese choreographer, Huang Dou Dou. Dou Dou runs a company in Shanghai and he has essentially created a dance form that combines some martial arts tropes and Chinese opera tropes with modern Martha Graham type dance. I loved his work a lot. I began to see a way to incorporate the movement into the Broadway show that would be interesting. We’ve just put the creative team together. We’re just starting to write it. Hope to get it on Broadway in 2-3 years.

How does it feel to be back at the Public?

DHH: I love being back at the Public. In 1980, we did FOB in the Martinson, and now it’s 2007, we’re doing YELLOW FACE at the Martinson. I was 22 and I was definitely the youngest person in the room. And now I’m 50 and I’m the oldest person in the room. To be able to have that kind of continuity with an institution-I’ve only really worked in New York at the Public and or Broadway. Not Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizon, Manhattan Theater Club or any of those places. Well, this has always been kind of my artistic home. It’s great now under three artistic leaders-Joe Papp, then George Wolf, and now Oskar Eustis, that I’ve been able to maintain that continuity.

Of all the mediums you’ve worked in, is there one that speaks to you most?

DHH: I started as a playwright and I haven’t done a play in ten years. GOLDEN CHILD was my last straight play prior to YELLOW FACE. I’ve been doing all of these other things which are great and I really really love doing them. Coming back to a play, it’s the medium where the writer, ie: me, is really in charge. It’s really my vision that everyone is trying to support.

If I do an opera, I feel like one of my jobs is to create something that the composer is going to do his or her best work for, we’re supporting the composer’s vision. If I do a movie, we’re supporting the director’s vision. If it’s a musical, it’s a more complicated animal. Certainly, if it’s a Disney musical, it’s supporting Disney’s vision. So I enjoy doing all those. It’s wonderful to come in, and bring as much of yourself as you can to someone else’s project, and feel I have some craft that I can contribute. But in any play, it’s me that’s out there. It’s the writer that’s out there. But coming back and doing a play again, its more exhilarating in a lot of ways, and a lot scarier in a lot of ways ’cause it is really me that’s out there. In this case, it’s me because there’s a character called DHH.

If there was anything you could say to your father today, what would that be?

DHH: I guess I would say to my Dad, “Look! You always wanted me to write a play about you, and now I’ve finally done it!”

For David it was time to get back to work. At fifteen minutes to curtain, our chat drew to a close as he headed back into Martinson Hall to see how the changes he made to the script in rehearsal earlier today would play out in front of an audience.

YELLOW FACE has performances through Sunday, January 13th in Martinson Hall at the Public Theater. The performance schedule is Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesdays thru Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 3 PM and 7 PM.

The Public Theater is located at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are $50 with student tickets available in advance, at the box office only, for $25 (1 per ID). There are a limited number of Rush Tickets sold an hour before curtain at every performance available to the general public (Two per person, $20 each, cash only).

To purchase tickets, call (212) 967-7555 or visit
Flower Drum Song: An American Story

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