Interviewed by Stephen Spotswood, dramaturg for Yellow Face
A stereotype is an oversimplified version of a person or thing. It’s a lack of detail—humanity drawn in broad strokes. Effectively, a stereotype gives a person permission to think shallowly about an individual.
The upcoming production of Yellow Face, written by David Henry Hwang and directed by Natsu Onoda Power does quite the opposite. The script contains a narrative that eschews easy answers, and Natsu is mining the text for every scrap of complexity it has to offer.
Stephen: You pointed out to me earlier that this play isn’t called Yellowface. It’s Yellow Face. What does that distinction mean to you?
Natsu: “Yellowface” refers to the (highly contested) convention in the theatre of actors of non-Asian (often Caucasian) decent playing characters who are Asian, often with makeup and broken/heavily accented English. It is problematic in a multitude of ways. It reinforces stereotypes, creates new stereotypes, deprives minority actors of opportunities to represent their own identities—the list is endless.
But then again it isn’t just purely evil. It’s more complicated than that. The play takes yellowface as a point of departure and explores multiple meanings, puns, and significance in the phrase “yellow face.” It is about public identity—the face we choose to show the world.
Stephen: I’ve noticed during rehearsals that you make a lot of comments about characters’ faces. So many of your notes to actors are about how they are trying to be perceived by the people they’re addressing. Interrogators put on sympathetic faces; politicians put on bombastic faces; reporters put on friendly faces.
Natsu: “Face” is also about the roles we play in our lives, the face we put on in different situations. These “faces” may not be disingenuous.
For instance, we see a very different face of DHH [David Henry Hwang, our protagonist] when he is with his ex-girlfriend as opposed to when he is in professional situations. Both of these faces are real, just different. It is also about façade and front. There is a very long, interesting scene between DHH and a journalist, in which both parties try to outsmart the other by trying different interview/conversation tactics and demeanor. As the scene progresses, these facades fall away, one by one.
“Face” is also about the burden of having to represent one’s culture, ethnicity, or whatever else. DHH becomes the “face” of Asian America. He says in a line: “That’s right, it’s my name out there. My face in the papers – the poster child for political correctness.”
Face is also a verb. It means to confront. To endure. To challenge. DHH faces a lot of difficult situations in the play, large and small, public and private. Casting controversy. Professional failures. Family emergency. Death of his father. But really, the biggest thing he faces in the play is his own “face”— recognizing it and letting go.
Stephen: Did you know you’d be approaching the play in this manner—looking at every character through the lens of their “face”—before rehearsals began?
Natsu: All these discoveries were made in rehearsals. It wasn’t planned. In the moment, however, I might present them as if I had been thinking about it all along. I am putting on a director face.
Stephen: You’ve had considerable experience working with the narratives of the transgender community. During the first rehearsal, you noted that a person can identify as a gender that is not their biological gender and expect others to respect that. As a rhetorical question you asked “Why isn’t that so of race?” So, I’m going to ask it non-rhetorically. Do you think that should be so of race?
Natsu: It is an unanswerable question. I think a more productive question would be “What are the consequences?” What are the consequences of a particular individual (with a particular history) representing a particular identity (or particular set of identities) in a particular situation in a particular historical and cultural moment?
Until we have examined all factors of a particular situation, how can we make a blanket statement?
Now, that sounded like a cop-out, but I didn’t mean it in an irresponsible/indecisive “it depends…” sort of way.
I am saying let’s actually investigate further, dig deeper. Race is not gender. Marcus Gee is not Jonathan Pryce. Blackface is not the same as yellowface. Yellowface in Madama Butterfly is not the same as yellowface in Miss Saigon!
I would like this question to lead us to greater complexity, nuanced understanding, and cultural and historical specificity—not judgment.