Review: The question of cultural portrayals at the heart of Los Altos Stage’s satire ‘Yellow Face’

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DHH (Wes Gabrillo), Marcus (Drew Reitz) and HYH (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) journey through the complex road of Asian casting in the Los Altos Stage production of “Yellow Face.” (Photo by Richard Meyer)

“Get your asses on stage, I’m raising cash tonight!”

In the early moments of the Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schonberg hit “Miss Saigon,” the Engineer barks these commands to a bevy of beautiful ladies in a bar, scantily clad with succulent legs and red hot pants for days. There is an energy in the bar that does not quit, a wild party amongst the young boys who soldier in the jungles, but have some reprieve to drink and screw all night long.

If you listen to this line in the original Broadway soundtrack, you will hear the stupendous voice of Welsh performer Jonathan Pryce. But what you will not see is his eyes and skin tone. A disgusting bronze with prosthetic, epicanthic folds, all ready to show the world that Asian style pimpin’ ain’t easy.

Big time Broadway shows are about big time money. Pryce, along with young breakout star Lea Salonga, got their asses on stage every night. And plenty of cash was raised in the process.

It goes without saying, but this portrayal is deeply offensive today, and certainly was back in the early 1990’s, a decision so controversial that a non-Asian actor never portrayed the Engineer again in major tours and revivals. It’s not the role itself that people had the biggest issue with, but the throwback casting in homage to the disgusting nature of Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” or Swedish-American actor Warner Oland’s broken English portrayal of Charlie Chan. The casting of Pryce did nothing to endear the producer, Cameron Mackintosh, to the community he was portraying.

Asian roles, good ones, are at a premium, and have been for years in the American theatre. So when playwright David Henry Hwang purposely leaked a letter condemning Mackintosh’s decision to cast Pryce, a leak he later admitted lying about, it put him in a firestorm of what is appropriate casting, forcing an examination of the connection of cultural literacy to art.

The history of this decision to move forward with Pryce from the original London production to its Broadway transfer is at the heart of a strong production of Hwang’s “Yellow Face,” produced at Los Altos Stage Company, running through Feb. 19th. Directed with many deft touches by Jeffrey Lo, the show travels with Hwang in a most hilarious yet poignant way, asking questions about casting, and who has the right to portray whom.

The play is a loose, unreliable memoir about his role in the “Miss Saigon” controversy, a moment that Hwang was clearly conflicted about, and a moment that lead him to writing a play in response.

That play was 1993’s “Face Value,” which flopped tremendously, never making it out of previews, and never having been published. It takes on the fictional casting by DHH (Wes Gabrillo) of a white man named Marcus G. Dahlman (Drew Reitz), which turned out to be a huge accident, because Hwang later realized Marcus isn’t actually Asian. Rather than moving on from Marcus, who speaks often of Chinese vocal traditions while delivering over-the-top lines of earnest heroism, DHH continues the charade by accentuating Marcus’ heritage. Is he Asian? Well, kinda. I mean, he is a Jew with roots in Siberia, which is certainly Asianesque. Right? But can Dahlman be a Asian surname? Nope, but the middle initial of G can certainly pass for one. By the time DHH realizes what is happening, the damage has been done, and it’s too late.

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A tender moment is shared between DHH (Gabrillo) and HYH (Arias). (Photo by Richard Meyer)

Marcus does it all – speaks at colleges to angry liberals, and even lands a hilarious role as the lovable King of Siam. Which is a great microcosm of the show’s bigger point, considering that the great Thai actor Yul Brynner made the role of the King famous. I mean, Brynner was actually Swiss and born in Russia, but aren’t we just splitting hairs at this point?

The show goes in and out of its realities beautifully, a Brechtian exhibition where actors simply wait on the side of the stage to enter. It’s a great touch by Lo because actors are always in the middle of the story, taking in information and listening at all times. Because a theatre performance is different every night, the entire cast never leaves the storytelling, which certainly gives them more opportunities in that Meisnerian sense depending on what space an actor occupies in their mind each night.

Lo also has a great feel for metaphor, creating a great playground for his actors, who even come out before the show to stretch and chat with each other, even reading plays to themselves like Hwang’s monster hit “M. Butterfly.”

While there was plenty of recognizable names in the theatre, journalism and historical world that pop up in the show (my theatre geekness was positively giddy that Michael Riedel even said hi), Lo grasps so many small moments. Take for example the scene where Marcus waits for a phone to be answered on the other side. With every missed call, Marcus takes literal steps to his eventual fate, inching closer to the unemployment abyss that actors know more than most. The staging is solid, a world that exists in literal and ephemeral ways.

While the ensemble cast does so many things well, there are three actors that truly stood out. The first was Gabrillo, who plays the fictional version of Hwang to great effect, a character that never leaves the stage. While there were moments that he traded truth for a bit too much jittery snark, Gabrillo takes on a daunting role and never seemed overwhelmed by the obstacles of his character. He has a keen sense of his surroundings, and connects to each moment with razor sharp focus.

Reitz as Marcus makes many range-filled choices, someone that darts into the duality of Marcus’ life seamlessly. He is funny, yet tender, and can still be aloof and elusive.

But my favorite moments belonged to Lawrence-Michael C. Arias, who plays Hwang’s father Henry, listed as HYH. Arias creates so many touches that get to the heart of who his character is. He is more than just a simpleton looking to score tickets for “Miss Saigon.” He accepts his son, he is connected to his heritage, which provides the cultural truths that DHH lives with and writes for, and he also creates so many breathtaking moments of poignancy. Whether it’s sharing a father’s pride, or walking off the stage for good after the country he loves turns its back on him, Arias is riveting.

“Yellow Face” is wonderful writing, a story that explores the daunting task of how to define a culture through art. And despite the fact that artistic history is littered with crap portrayals of people of color (I think back to my childhood watching Alan Arkin play a Mexican cop named “Bean” in the film “Freebie and the Bean” – oh the hilarity!), a new generation of artists are being given unprecedented opportunities to do more than just play Lun Tha or Tuptim in “The King and I” over and over again. People of color are writing, acting and directing more than ever, telling our stories for our communities and anyone who wants to learn about our unique contributions to this country. Put another way, in these dark times, people of color and marginalized communities continue to illuminate stages big and small with their honest, unique voices.

All because these artists continue to search for, and find, the ghost light.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Los Altos Stage Company presents “Yellow Face”
Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Jeffrey Lo
The Word: A slick and funny production of this Pulitzer Prize finalist play, Hwang takes many liberties that challenge the audience at every turn.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Los Altos Stage Company
97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos
Tickets range from $18 – $36
For tickets, call (650) 941-0551 or visit www.losaltosstage.org

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