The complete script of Yellow Face is published in the April 2008 print issue. The play is David Henry Hwang’s pointedly autobiographical satire about race, art and public image. Inspired by an earlier, unsuccessful play called Face Value and by his own high-profile involvement in the 1990 casting controversy surrounding the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, Hwang skewers our modern landscape of political correctness while taking a sobering detour into his father’s history.
Jack Viertel: Yellow Face turns out to have much more on its mind than satire—satire is like the seed that has this very elaborate plant hiding within it. Was that the scheme from the beginning?
David Henry Hwang: Well, I’d been wanting to fix my play Face Value for the past 17 years, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then I started thinking about the stage documentary form—making it a mock stage documentary that would poke fun at some of the absurdities of the multicultural movement. It seemed easiest to poke fun at myself, since that way I would be offending only me. Then I figured the play would begin and end with two fairly public events—the Miss Saigon thing [Hwang and other artists protested the casting of Jonathan Pryce in an Asian role] and the charges leveled against my father in the late ’90s. This would be a way of exploring all the different facets of Yellow Face.
So your father was looming in the background of this play in your mind from the beginning. Was he still alive at the time you were writing it?
Yes. When I first started writing it, he was sick and it was pretty clear that he was probably going to die. He read a first draft of it, which at that point of course didn’t have the character’s death…but it says a lot about him, that he actually liked how he was portrayed. He kind of took over the play in many ways, as he tended to take over things in life. (Laughs.)
In terms of your character being in the vice grip of whatever journalism was going to do to the bank, to your father, to you—is that a fairly accurate representation of what you went through?
I’m not going to comment on that. (Laughs.) Suffice it to say, the stuff about my father that I’ve taken from the public record is accurate. But in fact, it’s really more about our country, about public image, about face. The press plays a huge part in the life of any person whose face becomes somewhat public. So the press becomes very much a character.
Were the productions at the Mark Taper Forum and the Public Theater similar? Were reactions different?
There were a good number of rewrites between the first and the second productions, and the set was totally reconceptualized. I feel like, in general, it’s a little easier for audiences and critics to comprehend Pacific Rim issues in the Pacific Rim than it is in New York. To some extent, I found this true with Flower Drum Song, too [in 2001 at the Mark Taper Forum and 2002 on Broadway]. I feel like it’s easier for West Coast audiences to get this kind of thing. One can certainly argue that most of the major Asian-American political and cultural movements were born on the West Coast, so in some sense it’s a more natural home for that subject matter.
What did you learn in L.A. that you had to deal with?
From a textual standpoint, I wasn’t happy with the way the Saigon section unfolded at the beginning. The play’s ending, which I think is a lot of fun, is totally new. And HYH became much more of a presence for the New York presentation.
It was interesting for me seeing this play having watched your work from the days of FOB and The Dance and the Railroad—how do you feel about the fact that you’ve grown through a kind of young playwright reputation to become a more mature writer dealing with the end of your father’s life and your own middle age?
I’ve been fortunate to have a career from a very young age. As a result, I feel like I have these psychic snapshots of myself at different points in my life, and it’s possible to look back and see how you have evolved. But I also think that a somewhat skeptical play like Yellow Face has something necessary about it—it’s about the need to grasp two somewhat contradictory ideas: One is the notion of a post-racial society, and the other is the idea that racist things still happen, and you have to deal with it when they do. I feel that my own journey through these issues pretty much mirrors that of most people my age who are Asian American or who are a different minority than me. I feel like where I am is not that much different than where most of my contemporaries are.
One of the things that interested me about the play is the notion that the movement toward racial equality or a post-racial society has elements of tremendous overkill or naiveté within it—which is a hard thing to admit when you actually believe in the cause.
I think that any movement has, A, its limitations, and, B, its overreaching elements, its exaggerations. That’s certainly true of multiculturalism. In the ’80s, multiculturalism was a fairly new idea; now it’s pretty much ingrained in the culture. Moreover, it’s no longer enough to look at these issues within the boundaries of our own nation—a lot of the principles that applied to multiculturalism can now be extended on an international basis as we deal with a shrinking world, more porous borders, America’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Going on the journey of the play, did you ever consider doing it without an intermission?
Well, the original was written without an intermission, actually. There is a certain logic to thinking about the play without an intermission—the problem is that I just couldn’t get it to be 100, 105 minutes. And if you do it without an intermission, you end up hitting that long scene with the reporter at about 105 minutes, which is really hard for an audience. As in most of my two-act plays, the first act is basically a set-up.
I’m curious as to how you see yourself as a representative of a movement, as opposed to the way you see yourself in the tradition of poetic realism in American playwriting.
My primary identity, to myself, is as a writer. I didn’t set out to be a political spokesperson or a figure representing an ethnic group. I set out wanting to be a playwright. All this other stuff has come about as a consequence, I suppose, of whatever success I’ve been able to have as a writer. I remember being 23 and FOBopening at the Public and all of a sudden in certain circles I was considered a role model—the first profile of me ever published in the New York Times had the headline “I Write Plays to Claim a Place for Asian Americans”—which I don’t think I even really said, but it just sort of came along with the job. So I’ve tried to be as effective a figure as I could—but I’m really happy, at this point in history, because I don’t have to be the official Asian American! It’s not possible for any one individual to represent an entire community.
The arguments in Yellow Face are complex, and there is a lot to be said for almost every side you can think of. I don’t think anyone at the time of the Miss Saigon controversy had enough tolerance for how daunting and intractable these issues really are.
The atmosphere in the country around issues of race and culture were in a pressure cooker at that particular moment, and there was so much anger and so many feelings of resentment on all sides of the issue that were not being expressed—any opportunity to rally around an incident became a vent for everybody’s pent-up frustrations on all sides of the issue.
Jack Viertel is creative director of Jujamcyn Theaters and artistic director of New York City Center’s Encores! series. He was a co-producer of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.