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Writing yourself into your own play: brave, self-indulgent, clever, convenient, or unabashedly all of the above? David Henry Hwang blurs the line of reality and fiction in his latest show, Yellow Face.
Currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and soon to be on Broadway, Yellow Face is David Henry Hwang's first original play in ten years. Since his high-profile Tony win for M. Butterfly in 1988, David Henry Hwang has been one of the most prominent Asian American writers out there. Yet, fame and success come with high expectations, and he soon found himself (alternately by choice and by default) acting as the mouthpiece for the Asian American community -- with mixed results.
He jumped head-on into protest of a Caucasian male (Jonathan Pryce) being cast in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon -- fighting for the cause of ethnic-appropriate casting -- only to see Pryce play the role anyway and win a Tony for it. Then, his attempt to satirize the entire situation through his next play Face Value was so tragic that the play was shut down before it even opened.
Luckily, writers can make efficient use of every aspect of their lives, good and bad, and David Henry Hwang appears to be the master. Hwang draws upon some of his own experiences to create Yellow Face's central character -- a man not so subtly named DHH.
DHH, played by Hoon Lee, is a passionate, intelligent, socially-conscious, and slightly spazzed-out playwright who is casting for his new show. The premise of this fictional show is similar to Hwang's Face Value: two Asian American protesters go in whiteface to disrupt the opening night of a musical, in which the lead actor is a Caucasian playing an Asian. Unfortunately, the fictional DHH gets himself in a bind when he realizes that he accidentally casts a non-Asian (Peter Scanavino) in the lead role... as an Asian pretending to be Caucasian in order to protest a Caucasian playing an Asian. And, no good can ever come out of that.
Through this premise, Hwang not only explores the fluidity and constant evolution of identity and "race," but he also weaves in subplots that comment on the anti-Asian hysteria in the late '90s -- influenced by his late father, Henry Hwang (the founder of the first Asian American bank, Far East National Bank) who was famously accused and investigated for money-laundering.
The cast of characters in Yellow Face is comprised of actors who have become part of the David Henry Hwang theater family. The lead Hoon Lee was previously in the 2002 revival of Hwang's Flower Drum Song. Julienne Hanzelka, who plays Leah, was in Hwang's production of Golden Child. David Henry Hwang's real-life wife, Kathryn Layng, is also an essential part of the cast, as is another veteran of David Henry Hwang plays (Flower Drum Song, Golden Gate, The Dance And the Railroad, and FOB): the excellent, scene-stealing, can-we-start-a-fan-club-for-him? Tzi Ma, who juggles multiple characters -- including playing DHH's brash but loving father.
APA speaks to David Henry Hwang about his latest production.
Asia Pacific Arts: In Yellow Face, you essentially write yourself into your play. What about the mock-documentary format allows you to tell this particular story, in a way that you couldn't have done using a more standard structure?
David Henry Hwang: I think it's a great form for comedy, simply because documentaries are usually deadly serious. At the Oscars this year, during the documentary portion, Jerry Seinfeld said something like, "And, here are the four incredibly depressing nominated documentaries...." So for comedy, it already lends a level of irony because you're working in the documentary format.
But I think it's interesting because we're in a time in the culture right now where reality is more popular than fiction. People don't read novels anymore, but they buy memoirs and read non-fiction. Reality television is an example. People posting their own stories and own clips online is another example. I think, in the same way that there's a fine line between these racial differences, there's also a fine line between reality and fiction. And, you know, with reality TV, maybe they captured something as source material, but they cut together the footage so it has narrative value, just like a good story would have. You have your heroes; Simon's your villain [in American Idol]. So I feel like it's fun to be able to play within these conventions to explore what's real, what's not real, what's authentic, what's made-up.
APA: Do you think it was inevitable that you spoof yourself, given that your work has been so controversial and talked about over the years?
DHH: I had never thought about it until Greg [Pak] put me in [his short film] Asian Pride Porn, and I was playing myself. And there were a couple other filmmakers that put me in little cameos playing myself too. And then, I have my own life, which in itself could be a play. So, that's when I thought, "Oh I could do that."
APA: What was Greg Pak's film about?
DHH: He wrote a short film in which a character named David Henry Hwang is trying to push politically correct Asian porn -- so it empowers Asian men and is respectful of Asian women. And then he called me and said, "Well I can just have someone play you, or you could just play yourself." And I thought, "I'll just play myself."
APA: The behind-the-scenes genre is popular right now, with shows like Entourage and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But we rarely see Asian Americans being the ones taking us behind the scenes of the industry. Recently, Justin Lin's Finishing the Game does that by telling us a story of actors auditioning for the role of a fake Bruce Lee. Are there any different issues that can be explored when it's told from an Asian American perspective?
DHH: I guess the form is very fun right now, and Asian Americans are using it as well. One of the things that's useful from an Asian American perspective for this play is that I'm also talking about the ambiguity of race itself. The way in which Keanu Reeves is "Asian," and Michelle Branch is "Asian." Sort of, right? So these categories of who's Asian and who's white, which were at once clear, are becoming less and less clear. So in using the mockumentary format as you're doing an expose of how something like this happened, it felt like the right form for this story.
APA: What has made the mockumentary format so interesting is that it deconstructs the industry while it re-glamourizes it.
DHH: There is also a kind of mockumentary that is about ego. When you look at Garry Shandling's show, The Larry Sanders Show, and even now with Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's not really a documentary form, but the lead character doing a send-up of himself -- which is also what I do with the DHH character in this play. It's about his ego as an Asian American role model.
APA: So, when you were casting someone to play yourself, what were you looking for?
DHH: I was just looking for someone who would be funny in the part. Hoon Lee, who's playing the part and I think is fantastic in the role, I've known for a while because he did Flower Drum Song on Broadway. He doesn't look anything like me, except he's Asian, so we weren't going for accuracy. But he was really funny in all the scenes with DHH's one-offs and chagrin and all that kind of stuff.
Yellow Face is playing in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum until July 1, 2007.
To go to the official site, click here.
Date Posted: 6/8/2007