Post-Script to “The Lead Has a Broken Ankle? Get the Artistic Director!”

Rebecca Ritzel’s piece is out today in the Washington Post’s Backstage column, and it fills in the chronology that we kept adding to on facebook, as Yellow Face cast member Al Twanmo went down with an injury the morning after opening night. Al was kept at Suburban hospital  and underwent surgery the next day, receiving screws and a metal plate to stabilize a shattered ankle. Director Natsu Onoda Power returned to the theater 20 hours after opening to block out in her own mind a strategy for moving forward as a production. Al would return to the role eventually–his performance is brilliant and indelible–but he would need recovery time for the post-op pain to subside. When would he be back? How would he continue? With crutches? The show was staged at too much of a break-neck pace (pardon the literalness) to allow for slow entrances and exits. Natsu conceived of a restaging for actor in wheelchair, with Al’s track being slimmed down a bit to encompass playing “only” Henry Y. Hwang and Wen Ho Lee; the other smaller roles being redistributed amongst the extraordinary cast.

I was summoned by the director to sit in on wheelchair in Al’s stead. I was reluctant. I was teaching on Thursday night! I had a paper to present Friday morning at the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis “New Directions” Conference (and hadn’t come close to finishing it yet). Never mind all that; Natsu was imploring, cajoling, begging. I finished the paper Wednesday morning, notified my TA about class, and got to work highlighting (with early assistance from our production manager) the Yellow Face script.

Here are  notes from my journal written before and during the show itself, from Al’s chair in the Men’s dressing room.

Me and the cast as HYW

An Actor’s Diary.

It’s 6:24 and I’m the first in the dressing room as I prepare to go on for Al… Well, I’m not really going on — not off-book — and it’s not really taking over — I’m sitting in for the night… It’s a tribute performance to Al, honoring his rhythms, his humor, his pathos in the role of the playwright’s father, as Al channels the voice of this own Chinese-American immigrant father. I’ve found his performance and his own acknowledgment of his father as being an inspiration for the role to be tremendously touching. So I’m most mindful of channeling that. In many ways, the father-son relationship is the heart of the play–all its sincerity resides there–and its particular immigrant texture is terribly important. And in my version of it, it’s potentially being compromised; a white Jewish man taking over where only, it would seem, an Asian-American actor could do justice to the pidgin English intonation of a major success story (a minority owned bank company president) who still talked kinda funny.

How to pay homage? How to find character without resorting to caricature? The character’s essence is in the melody of his expression; the lilt; the humor; the boastfulness and self-effacement; so I must embrace that; find the humor. Find the variety. The impishness. The euphoria and disappointment. He is a true immigrant father, like my [German-Jewish] immigrant father… Offering his son money, and a seat on his board, and a title: Director of Nepotism!

…I haven’t looked in a mirror this much in years! Decades! If I did this more often, I’d be a lot better groomed! I’d have better hair management all over. I’m without all my gadgets right now — no iPhone, no Macbook, for the past two hours, and it’s glorious; liberating and quieting and meditative and fun. I should do this more often!

I’ve always admired those actors who refuse to get on facebook; who keep to an unplugged routine; who get centered and connected to the self in the most elemental way; through a complete and thorough checking in, externally and internally.

“The show’s going to be beautiful,” that’s what our Assistant Stage Manager, Truth-Ann Watkins says efficiently moving in and out of the dressing rooms, getting so many little things ready. “It’s like a first preview; remembering  new blocking; getting into a new rhythm,” says cast member Mark Hairston. Who knows how it’s going to go!?

Woops, it’s 7:10 and Natsu’s swung by to wish us well, plied with a glass of wine or two beforehand, and she’s startled to see that I have forgotten to put any grey in my hair! No one told me I was supposed to put grey in my hair! What to do? We find the Beu Nye brand Snow White Hair Color bottle and begin to tooth-brush it into my thinning pate. Too much. Too little. Our other great ASM, Jessica Soriano comes in with a towel to dab out the excess, spread the Snow White around evenly. She’s patient, calming. And it’s 1 minute to places!

Fascinating to be backstage during the run of a busy show… Really for the first time in my life. And eventually they get to page 5, a good 8 minutes into the show, and my role comes up and it seems to go fine. Perhaps my dialect is a little bit thick at the beginning? How’s the audience supposed to absorb that? In rehearsals everyone was laughing, but now…? Yellow Speak in public? Well, the laughs we had in rehearsal are all landing in performance. And the show’s finding its comic footing (so to speak x2). Now I go onto the next scene, costume change (from pull-over sweater to suit and tie). Note: Question for Natsu — shouldn’t MH wheel dad on only after Marcus’ monologue, not during?

Act II… All’s well. 2 more scenes to go after the top of the act. I’m getting almost all the laughs; missed one. Is the issue of my playing in Yellow Dialect striking them as a bit retrograde? Maybe they’re not in on the joke… What if I were going on in Blackface? Talk about retrograde! Can I get away with this? Next time, I might try this role with no dialect; summoning a portrait not as homage to Al’s reading, but something more authentic to my being. But this isn’t about finding a character within my experience; it is about serving the role as Al has rendered it. I’m in service to that shell.

The encouragement of the cast sees me through. It’s a thoughtful bunch, and they too have their questions, about whether I should be doing it in dialect. But there’s an embrace of the risk as well; a smiling acknowledgment that it’s working; or that we’re getting away with it; at least for the night!

That’s it. Diary runs out. Life pressed forward. The paper. The conference. Interviewing Natsu for the weekend Directors Forum. Reading 4 plays for this morning’s Readers Committee. Hundreds of backlogged emails to respond to. “The Admission is Coming! The Admission is Coming!” The life of the A.D. returns. I miss my actorly preparations. Maybe I can still aspire to them. Maybe I can check in more regularly. Maybe I can use that hair gel more often? Maybe I can meet the moment with that certain sense of priority on a regular basis. Maybe I already do — it was in me all along. It is with me this morning, as I rush off to speak at another synagogue over lunch. I definitely won’t get as many laughs as Thursday night! Cause I don’t have David Henry Hwang as my writer. I don’t have Al Twanmo as my model. But I do have a great experience under my belt. Grateful for that; for the company; for Natsu; and the staff. A passage to remember!

Me standing as HYW with cast