Photo by Will O'Hare Photo by Will O'Hare Will O'Hare

Just as a joke can slice tension right out the rooms of heated lovers and sparring spouses, so humor can exorcise it out of a society. As Vonnegut before him, and Chekhov before Vonnegut, famed playwright David Henry Hwang uses his comedic genius to reveal – and at times revel in – one of the most politically, psychologically and philosophically potent issues involving humankind. Racial discrimination, and the concept of race itself, are brought into question in this remarkable play about the meaning of nationality, community, and identity.

Invoking as many forms of racial prejudice as he can muster in one play, Hwang uses his lightheartedness and humor like brushstrokes on a canvas, painting what is indeed a grave subject with kind of charm and wit impossible to resist. As the name of the play suggests, Hwang’s deprecating play was inspired by the existence of “yellow facing” in which Caucasian actors are hired into Asian roles in order to appeal to a higher demographic and, more indicatively, due to the absence of adequate Asian actors, as suggested in the play itself. From Bruce Lee being passed up to play the role of an Asian Kung-Fu master in the movie Kung Fu in favor of a white actor, to the casting of a Caucasian Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, American cinema is ripe with such instances of racial discrimination.

Hwang uses this idea as a foundation for his exploration of race and its relationship with identity and belonging. As every character twists and withers in and out of racial stereotypes, racial identities, and even races themselves, the entire questions of race becomes just that – a question. What does race mean and what characteristics is it inherent to? What manner of racial acknowledgment is appropriate and necessary, and when does it become prejudice? How fluid is race between cultures and within them? It is a play that presents many questions and provides few answers, perhaps in order to champion the very notion of tolerance in its refusal to come to clear conclusions.

As Hwang weaves his way around these questions, he manages to seamlessly blend the autobiographical with the dramatic, interlacing farce and fiction around the gravity of the victimization experienced by many Chinese Americans in the last few decades, and the many before. He uses the irrefutability of history to bring it light, and then turns the solemnity of this information in on itself until its absurdity comes spilling out like guts. His invitation is a provocation not just to think about these issues, but to question their very existence as issues.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: David Hwang’s Yellow Face explores discrimination with a comedic touch at Hart House Theatre
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