Though the slogan for Office of War Information (the "O.W.I") says “subverting expectations since 2004,” I had never heard of them before seeing this production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face. Further research into their (vague) website indicates that the company came to Boston from LA (though it doesn’t say when), and that they are now a Resident Company at the Boston Center for the Arts (the "B.C.A.").
O.W.I.’s mission is to subvert expectations through the premiere of new plays or the reimagining of old stories. David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face is a prime example of reimagining stories since it is in itself semi-autobiographical, blurring the lines between truth and fiction. The play also explores the uncomfortable, and still very important, theme of race and its representation in the arts. While the company is small, and its mission self-indulgent if you read the program statement from Pete Riesenberg, the Artistic Director, the production itself was mighty and remarkably not didactic; it is an honest, humorous, and heartfelt look at our assumptions of race.
Earlier this year, Company One and ArtsEmerson presented Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, which subverts the notion of “black face” by beginning the play with an African-American actor putting on “white face.” This year also saw the re-emergence of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, and the triumph of Hamilton - and diversity in theater - at the Tony Awards, bringing further discussion to the issue of race and representation in the performing arts.
The play itself, written by David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award-winning writer of M. Butterfly, is a masterpiece found at the meeting of truth and fiction. By including himself and his family as characters in the play, Hwang has taken a deep, hard look at himself and his own preconceived notions of race. This takes cojones.
Dovetailing on his success for M. Butterfly in 1988, playwright and character Hwang is enmeshed in protesting white, British actor Jonathan Pryce’s (yes . . . that Jonathan Pryce, the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones) casting as the French-Vietnamese hustler, The Engineer, in the Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon in this play. This true incident is at the center of Yellow Face. An interesting tidbit is that both M. Butterfly and Miss Saigon were inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, a point that Hwang’s father, Henry, makes note of in this play. Hwang’s outrage at the yellow-facing of Jonathan Price backfires when he inadvertently casts the white actor, Marcus G. Dahlman, as the Asian lead in his latest Broadway-bound play, Face Value. What unfolds is Hwang’s attempt to distance himself from both the Miss Saigon protests and from Dahlman, who he helped build into an Asian-American role model.
Michael Hisamoto, seen earlier this season in Fast Company at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, shines in his portrayal of playwright David Henry Hwang. Hisamoto manages a perfect balance of self-effacing humor and gut-wrenching honesty. The only other actor to play a single role in this production of Yellow Face is Adam Barraneda as Marcus G. Dahlman, who constantly looks like a deer caught in the headlights, in the most beautiful way: wide-eyed, completely vulnerable, almost angelic. The rest of the cast plays a menagerie of characters, adeptly switching from Hwang’s parents to journalists, Broadway producers to Asian-American student activists, lawyers to Jane Krakowski.
There is virtually no technical theater element to speak of, and somehow that feels right for this piece and for the mission of O.W.I. If this play is to strip down the masks that we put on as a society, knowingly or accidentally, there is value in being able to see the entire audience (mostly Caucasian the night I saw it) watching the play. The staging, which could have been more visionary, took place in the round, with the action occurring not only in front of you, but around and behind you as well. At first, it was a bit distracting to be able to see the rest of the audience in almost full light, as well as nerve-wracking when an actor looked directly at you in a first-person address; however, with the manic episodic nature of the play, and a cast that is constantly changing from one character to another (with mostly great versatility), the audience just became part of the scenery.
In the political climate of the 2016 election, where racial discrimination is, sadly, at the forefront, Yellow Face feels especially pertinent. And if the mission of theater, and that of O.W.I. in particular, is to transform you and subvert your expectations, I cannot wait to see more work like it.
David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face runs now until Sunday, July 31, 2016, at the Boston Center for the Arts, in Martin Hall of the Calderwood Pavilion. Tickets are available here: http://www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/Yellow-Face.