Round the back of Finsbury Park station is a brand new (two-week old) two-storey theatre, privately funded, with its own resident dog (a huge thing, the artistic director’s apparently) and containing two performance spaces. In the smaller space last night I saw a cracking play by an American writer called David Henry Hwang.
Yellowface, the inaugural production from a brand new company called Special Relationship Productions, is an autobiographical piece about a Chinese American playwright (Hwang) who as a student back in 1990 was in the front line of protestors objecting to Jonathan Pryce playing a Eurasian in Miss Saigon on Broadway. A few years later Hwang is having difficulty finding an Asian actor for his own play Face Value (which is about the Miss Saigon fiasco) and ends up casting a white actor who he and others are sort of tricked into believing has vague Siberian Jewish roots. When word gets out the actor is no more Asian than Jonathan Pryce he gets sacked, but goes on to embrace his new (false) identity anyway, playing the King in The King and I, inadvertently changing his name to Marcus Gee and even finding himself under investigation as an Asian-American for donating funds to Bill Clinton, before he winds up paying a lengthy visit to China and embracing its culture. Meanwhile Hwang himself gets embroiled in a kind of McCarthy-type Yellow Peril witch-hunt when his father, a passionate patriot of his adopted country, who runs an Asian-American bank on the west coast, is investigated for possible dodgy dealings before dying, broken-hearted, of cancer.
The joy of this play is that the writer manages to tell a (largely true) story of important and serious goings-on in such an entertaining way. He pokes gentle fun at a profession bent on ‘ethnically authentic’ casting – like all Asians from Russia to Indonesia are and look the same – and where a casting director is forbidden by law to ask an actor where he or she comes from (she does it anyway); he points up the absurdity of a country where a Chinese immigrant who has so passionately embraced American culture is vilified for being a Chinese immigrant, and a Chinese nuclear scientist is (wrongly) held in solitary confinement for suspected espionage; and from these ingredients he concocts a thoughtful, thought-provoking, intelligent and hilarious two-hour play (plus a bit, it was a long interval).
Great performances too – if perhaps on occasion a tad too big for the small in-the-round (or strictly speaking in-the-square) theatre – especially from Ben Starr as the actor, making his first professional appearance on stage, Kevin Shen, likewise, as the writer, and Christy Meyer as the ‘Name withheld on Advice of Counsel’.