In 21st-century America, every Jew is a Jew by choice, accepting or rejecting the mantels of denomination and affiliation, religious observance and even cultural and filial identification. That issue of self-identification becomes a powerful subtext in Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang’s semi-autobiographical play Yellow Face, making its fortuitous debut at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J through Feb. 23.
In Yellow Face, Hwang traces his own experience in the 1990s as the theater field’s most prominent spokesman for authenticity and sensitivity in casting. The author of the Tony Award-winning M Butterfly, itself a piquant look at identity, challenged theatrical heavies like British producer Cameron Mackintosh over the casting of a Caucasian man – British actor Jonathan Pryce made up to look Asian – to play the role of a Eurasian pimp in the blockbuster Miss Saigon, which opened on Broadway in 1991.
Playing Hwang, noted as DHH in the playbill, Stan Kang is an affable but somewhat nebishy writer – think a Chinese-American Woody Allen type with less psychiatric treatment but similar overbearing and over-loving parent issues.
As dad Henry Y. Hwang, Al Twanmo is a perfect foil for the overbearing Jewish mother. He’s no paternal Tiger Mom; instead he’s a dad who believes blindly in the talent and ability of his offspring. He views even his son’s failures — being called out or panned in the press — as successes: “They wrote about you in the newspaper.”
He’s also an immigrant with a full- and open-hearted love for the American dream. Founder of an Asian-American bank, he puts his playwright son on the board fully aware that it’s filial duty, not interest in finances, that keeps DHH at meetings.
There’s something poignant about how Twanmo, with his Chinese-accented English, overprotects his adult son, checking in by phone, reveling in his achievements and, like many parents over a certain age, struggling with technology. On opening night after the show, Twanmo slipped on an icy patch and broke his ankle, causing cancellation of the next show and a one-time replacement that featured Theater J’s artistic director Ari Roth. For the completion of the run, the actor has returned to the stage and the director has re-blocked the entire production for Twanmo in a wheelchair.
DHH finds himself in a mess while casting his own play with an Asian actor. Instead he inadvertently hires Marcus G. Dahlman (a very slick Rafael Untalan), who doesn’t say he isn’t Asian, but doesn’t exactly allow that he is. Hwang, the playwright, peppers his play with real-life characters – comedian Lilly Tomlin, Sens. John Kerry, Richard Shelby and Sam Brownback, actress Jane Krakowski, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, columnist George Will and interviewer Dick Cavett all make brief, but often vivid appearances, played by a cast of actors adept at impersonation and caricature.
It turns out that Marcus Dahlman is not what he seemed, and that puts DHH into a bind. But as the play progresses into the second act, Hwang complicates matters. In dissecting issues of race, identity and representation in American society andpopular culture, he complicates matters, bringing the story of Wen Ho Lee,the Chinese-American scientist accused of spying for China, sending Dahlman on a trip to the depths of China, and following his father’s banking scandal, including testimony before a congressional investigative committee.
The muscular, vivid direction of Natsu Onoda Power, a Georgetown University professor making a name for herself in the D.C. theater community, allows the actors to imbue their roles – and many play a half-dozen characters – with verve and energy.
The set design of Luciana Stecconi features an imposing wall of file cabinet drawers that suggest the life’s work of a playwright: researching and collecting reams of material that ultimately gets pared down into a workable script.
Projection designer Jared Mezzocchi returns to Theater J with another set of smartly executed videos that draw from our American cultural history of representation of the Asian character type in film — Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee, et al.
The crux of the play poses the questions of who owns identity and how does one define oneself, particularly in a nation that purports to be a melting pot, but has ongoing obsessions and peccadilloes regarding race and ethnicity. In Yellow Face, DHH’s father sees his adopted country as a place where not only can an immigrant become a successful bank president, but a Chinese man can become white.
It’s an intriguing proposition in a nation that strives to be race-blind, yet race and ethnic identity still play a huge role in U.S. politics and social interactions. So Theater J has boldly taken up the mantel, not with a play about being Jewish in America, but about being Chinese. In the end though, the sentiments are universally shared.
Yellow Face is onstage through Feb. 23 at the DCJCC. Ticket, from $35, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or visiting www.theaterj.org.