“But where are you really from?” is a question, theme, and irritation that runs throughout David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face. Presented for the first time in New Zealand by Red Scare Theatre Company, Set amongst the New York entertainment industry of the late 1990’s, the play explores racial identity, heritage, and how we relate to it. We’re not left with many answers, but the journey exploring them is as fascinating as it is funny.
The show features a small cast, largely made up of ensemble work supporting the core story of between Hwang and Marcus. The larger-than-life characters (some real figures, others caricatures) the cast embodies do a fantastic job of setting the scene for the audience. With a minimalist design, and a rapid pace which jumped time and space in a heartbeat, it was necessary and satisfying to be helped along by the excellent character work. At times keeping track of who was who got tricky, however these specifics had little bearing on the plot and was easy to shrug off. On the whole, it was satisfying to watch a show that moves at a such a rapid pace it always feels one step ahead of you rather than two steps behind.
If the ensemble makes up a vibrant New York set, Hwang and Marcus provide the grounding for the work. Alex Rabina plays Hwang in a way that is neither likeable nor reprehensible, yet it is necessary for us to get a taste of his flaws in order to appreciate the ideological complexities of the show. His frustration is palpable and always close to the surface, his disillusionment exhausting. Hwang embodies the vexation of that which Marcus never has to encounter - an inability to take off the mask of ethnicity.
James Cain’s Marcus is both endearingly naive and morally questionable. A cultural ‘tourist’, Marcus dips into Hwang’s world and reaps the rewards. We cringe as he finds a sense of belonging in the Asian American community, seeing both the sincerity of his feelings and being aware of the falseness of his situation. Like with Hwang, it makes it difficult to fully like or condemn him - though there are plenty of eyerolls to be had at his white saviour rhetoric. I felt constantly pulled between being irked by the characters behaviour, only to catch myself sympathising with their plights. It’s an energy true to the play as a whole - it’s an exploration of ideas regarding race rather than a manifesto on how we should feel about it.
The design elements of the production create a beautifully neutral landscape for the actors to play upon and do an excellent job of supporting the text. Lucas Neals’ set design is minimalistic, a white box filled with sharp, unexpected angles and levels. The myriad of niches and crannies the set offered were utilised well by director Cassandre Tse, creating dynamic stage pictures as well as delineating the rapid scene changes. Similarly, sound design (Patrick Barnes) provides a useful flag for scene changes in a world where we could otherwise get lost amid the flurry of bodies. James Ruscoe’s lighting design is simple and functional, but has moments of breathtaking beauty. The way set and lights come together is a piece of art in itself.
It’s dense, chewy subject matter. Not only that, it’s current subject matter. It’s a bit spine-tingly watching the play as it speaks to many conversations we are currently in the thick of - from Trump’s stance on immigrants to our more local debates over how to stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. I was impressed at the text's ability to engage in these subjects with intelligence, but also lightness. Both the comedy and the poignancy lie in the absurdity of the story itself. The examination of racism, orientalism, and the everyday fraught-ness of living as an Asian American is both fresh and funny. It feels significant that this play is being produced here and now, and Yellow Face represents a voice we should prioritise listening to. And, with such a slick production of it, there couldn’t be a more enjoyable way to do so.
Yellow Face is on until March 18th, 7.30pm at Whiteria Performance Centre.
Book tickets online here: http://sa2.seatadvisor.com/sabo/servlets/EventSearch?presenter=NZWCP