Yellow Face, National Theatre Shed, London – review

The representation of ethnic minorities on stage is a thorny issue, but David Henry Hwang’s sparkling 2007 comedy, drawn from real-life events, picks its way through the thicket nimbly. Which is not to say it is not serious: it is, very much so, and there are flashes of deep anger in here too. But Hwang cleverly matches style to content, mixing fact and fiction in his play to the point where certainties slip away. And Alex Sims’ staging for Special Relationship Productions (first seen at London’s Park Theatre) brings it to life with warm, sprightly wit.

Hwang places himself at the centre of events (making many a gag on the self-indulgence of this). The play’s main character is a Chinese-American playwright called David Henry Hwang, who, having had a Tony-award-winning hit with M Butterfly, has become a spokesperson for the Asian-American community. All this is fact. The action starts with the onstage David caught up in the (real) controversy about Jonathan Pryce taking the lead role in Miss Saigon on Broadway in 1990. Our playwright responds to the resultant furore by writing a farce called Face Value, only to find himself trapped in a desperate tangle when he inadvertently casts Marcus, a white actor, in the lead (Asian) role.

David’s attempts to rectify the situation equate to struggling in quicksand. Soon he is embroiled in a Kafkaesque situation while his protégé discovers a new purpose in life as a voice for the Asian-American community, producing a showdown at which an outraged David bellows: “I was an Asian-American role model back when you were still a Caucasian!”

All this is very droll but it cleverly illustrates the slippery complexities of this area (David is told that to fire Marcus because he is white would amount to racism). Meanwhile an interweaving strand of the play concerns the rise of “yellow peril” hysteria in some quarters in the US in the late 1990s, which affected Hwang’s own father. Hwang’s onstage playwright realises that his best revenge on a journalist writing damaging stories would be to put her in his play – which he does.

Lovely performances from Kevin Shen as the charming but increasingly neurotic David, David Yip as his father and Ben Starr as the accidental Asian, are supported by an ensemble that whistles through dozens of cameo roles and voices. It’s a jaunty, nuanced piece that keeps shifting perspective and so asks probing questions about race, ethnicity and identity in contemporary America.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.