Nothing Human is Pure: “Yellow Face”

Presented by Lyric Stage Boston
By David Henry Hwang 
Directed by Ted Hewlett
Intimacy direction by Angie Jepson
Dramaturgy by Hailey Madison Sebastian
Featuring: JB Barricklo, Michael Hisamoto, Alexander Holden, Jupiter Le, Jenny S Lee, Mei MacQuarrie

May 31 – June 23, 2024
Asian Joy Night on June 7 @ 8PM
140 Clarendon St, 2nd Floor
Boston, MA 02116

Critique by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON, Mass. — David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face was first published in 2008. It is 16 years later, and the play remains relevant enough not to be a period piece. Yellow Face plays at the Lyric Stage through June 23.

History will remember Jonathan Pryce for being on the wrong side of the 1990s Broadway Miss Saigon scandal. Pryce blamed everyone except himself for playing the Engineer in Cameron Mackintosh’s West End production of Schonberg and Boublil’s musical. Pryce could have said no to the role. He didn’t. The Lyric’s dramaturg Hailey Madison Sebastian has an article about the scandal HERE

Hwang wrote the semi-autobiographical, 100% mellow-dramatical Yellow Face in response to Pryce’s casting in Miss Saigon. It follows the factual Broadway protests and incorporates a partially-fictional production of Hwang’s lost play Face Value. In it, Hwang (Michael Hisamoto) imagines what would happen if he mistakenly cast a Caucasian man, Marcus Gee (Alexander Holden), in Face Value after extensive national auditions for the right actor. This costly mistake haunts Hwang when Gee self-identifies as a “born-again Asian.” Hwang must reconcile his internalized racism against the Anti-communism “yellow peril” of the 90s. Please note: Face Value is not the same as Face/Off, a John Woo film featuring the minty fresh talents of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in their effervescence.

Yellow Face features JB Barricklo, Jupiter Le, Jenny S Lee, and Mei MacQuarrie in multiple roles. Here’s a detailed synopsis via the Lyric Stage. 

Hwang writes himself into his play as a lonely anti-hero in a love affair with his own hand. Michael Hisamoto is equal parts deflated and self-indulgent as the caricaturized playwright. Hisamoto stabilizes Hwang’s failures of conscience with graceful comedic timing and vulnerability through the writer’s many humiliations. He’s funny and his work inspires sympathy for the fictional Hwang even though Hwang writes the character into many immoral corners. 

Mark S Howard.

Alexander Holden is a plainspoken everyman as Marcus Gee. Gee is perfectly nice, and a prime example of how everyday nice people commit racism. Any person could be Gee. If the character is a suit one can put on and take off according to circumstances, Holden is the tailor showing us how well it would fit any of us. 

The projection designs by Megan Reilly were a delightful addition to the show. She projects supertitles titles onto the stage like lit filagree announcing the next scene. Chinese landscapes and newspaper clippings fit snuggly into the scenic design to transport the audience through time and space. 

Director Ted Hewlett and his ensemble subtly frustrate the waters of calm excellence with Yellow Face. They don’t hit you over the head with slapstick or repeated catchphrases; they win us the audience the old-fashioned way with good timing, mutual respect, and thorough character building. The ensemble work is great. The actors work well together; solid rapport is the foundation of this play’s excellence. 

This production isn’t flashy; its comedy is immediate and often dark; it is a play about people standing around and arguing. Standing around and yelling is how most atrocities begin: a MAGA rally, a Senate hearing, or a Klan meeting. Take, for example, the congressional ban on TikTok that Biden signed into law. Or, the public arrests of Harvard professors and students. Racism hasn’t ended because a play by an Asian American playwright is performed for white folks by an Asian cast in Boston. Racism has merely adapted to the modern day: new tactics, same BS. 

Yellow Face’s premise is based on the illegal practice of hiring or firing of employees for their race while stating and restating that jobs should go to the best candidate. Hwang touches on the importance of representation. It’s a well-written pay. The Lyric’s production is a great way to spend an evening.  

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