We’ve come a long way since Mickey Rooney’s cod-Japanese turn in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’… haven’t we? Even today, British Asian actors remain woefully under-represented on our stages. Only last year, the RSC was forced to defend a largely Caucasian cast performing Chinese play ‘The Orphan of Zhao’.
That event recalled the controversy over ‘Miss Saigon’s Broadway run, when ‘yellowed-up’ actor Jonathan Pryce drew huge protests. They were led by Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang and this 2007 mockumentary play starts with that debacle.
Hwang becomes his own protagonist and he’s not afraid to send himself up. In 1993, he writes a farce about cross-racial casting and – in an almighty faux pas – accidentally casts a white actor in an Asian role. Desperate to save face, he convinces the actor to stress his non-existent Siberian Jewish ancestry. The play bombs, but its lead, Marcus G Dahlman (connivingly renamed Marcus Ghee), becomes the biggest Asian-American star in the country. Oops.
‘Yellow Face’ is a thesis of a play, unafraid of complexities and contradictions, pepped up with a light dramatic fizz. It asks whether race is skin-deep, actable or even fakeable, and it does so with huge wit and brio. Hwang’s self-mocking mea culpa is delicious and Kevin Shen plays him with fumbling aplomb.
Alex Sims directs with real whip – building momentum as the play moves into heavier territory – addressing the Yellow Peril banking witchhunt of the late-1990s, which saw Hwang’s own father draw unwarranted FBI suspicion.
Most exciting of all, though, is Ben Starr, making his stage debut with a scorching performance – sleazy and sympathetic, earnest and egotistical – as Marcus Ghee. Remember the name: he’ll go right to the very top.
By Matt Trueman