History Behind Yellow Face

Dramaturgy by Hailey Madison Sebastian

About the Show

Yellow Face is a semi-autobiographical play written by David Henry Hwang. It follows a fictionalized account of the controversial casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, as well as the production process of Hwang’s play, Face Value, which was written in protest to Pryce’s casting. Face Value would end up starring Marcus G. Dahlman – more well-known by his stage name Marcus Gee –, who turns out to be a white actor playing an Asian role. Through humor, Yellow Face debates the intersectionality between race, ethnicity, and nationality, and how it aligns with one’s identity.

Historical Events & Topics Discussed in Yellow Face

Miss Saigon & Its Controversies

Miss Saigon is a musical composed by Claude Michel-Schönberg and written by Alain Boulbill and Richard Maltby, Jr. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, the Broadway musical takes place during the Vietnam War, and follows a prostitute named Kim who dreams about starting a new life in America. In Yellow Face, the main controversy surrounding Miss Saigon based on the casting of one of its leads, Jonathan Pryce – a white, Welsh actor – as The Engineer, a Eurasian character. Pryce wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to alter his Eurocentric features and appear more Asian, rather than casting an actor of Asian descent.

However, Pryce was not the only one who would don yellow face in the cast of Miss Saigon: actor Keith Burns was cast as Thuy – a fully Vietnamese character – in the original London production. Burns would be replaced by Barry Bernal, a Filipino-American actor, in the Broadway run, but Pryce kept his role during the transfer, although he did not wear the prosthetics and makeup when the show premiered in the United States. Despite protests, Pryce would go on to win both the 1990 Olivier and 1991 Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his performance.

Face Value

In response to Jonathan Pryce’s casting, David Henry Hwang wrote a play called Face Value, starring B.D. Wong, Jane Krakowski, Mark Linn-Baker, Mia Koff, and Gina Torres, with Wong, Krakowski, and Baker being key characters in Yellow Face. The show premiered in Boston at the Colonial Theatre and was set to open at the Cort Theatre on Broadway, but closed during previews on March 14th,1993. 

Not much is known about Face Value, as the play has never been produced or published since its failed run on Broadway. The only traces of the plot were found in reviews of the Boston premiere by the Harvard Crimson and the Christian Science Monitor in 1993, and an article by New York Times writer Alexis Soloski published in 2020. According to the articles, the plot of Face Value takes place backstage on the opening night of the fictional musical The Real Manchu where a white actor has been cast as the Asian lead. Baker’s character was the aforementioned white actor playing the lead role of Fu Manchu, who is so engrossed in his method acting that he starts to truly believe he is a Chinese emperor. Wong and Koff played two Asian-American actors who go to the show in protest, partially because they believe it was an orientalist show, but also because Wong’s character never got an audition opportunity for it.  Krakowski and Torres played supporting roles as an actress and a stage manager, respectively. 

Face Value only had eight previews before it shut down due to poor reviews and “a lack of box office interest”. 

Wen-Ho Lee’s Government Investigation & “Operation Kindred Spirit”

Wen Ho Lee is a Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist who was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico at the time of his indictment. He was accused of giving China classified information about the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. During his investigation, Lee’s conversations with other Taiwanese-Americans who were accused of espionage were wiretapped, and he was interrogated by the FBI multiple times over 17 years. In 1999, he was formally arrested and indicted on 59 counts: 39 for misconducting information under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and 20 for espionage. He was released after 278 days due to the case being unprovable. In 2000, he entered a plea bargain and pled guilty to one count of illegal “retention” of “national defense information”, but the other 58 counts were dropped because in order to prove Lee’s guilt, the U.S. government would have to release other classified information regarding more secretive subjects. Lee was never formally charged with any of the allegations against him.

Lee’s case brought forward the racial profiling of other Asian-Americans during the Cold War, which served as inspiration for the subplot in Yellow Face, for reasons other than espionage. Racism and profiling during this time included stereotypes of illegal immigration, links to terrorism – especially amongst South Asians –, gang affiliation, and being the “model minority” – the stereotype that Asian-Americans were successful, well-educated, and could do no wrong, which led to law enforcement officials neglecting their issues. This also perpetuated systemic inequalities that Asian-Americans faced, and minimized other, pressing problems they encountered.

Asian Representation in Western Media

The first known notable Asian entertainers were conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who helped coin the term “Siamese twins” because of their Siamese ethnicity. They toured around the United States as a part of “freak shows” before retiring after the Civil War. 

Along with the Bunker twins, other pioneering Asian-American performers included Anna May Wong, Sessue Hayakawa, and Merle Oberon from the 1920’s to the 1940’s. Oberon hid her Indian heritage, going as far to create a false origin story regarding her birth and lineage in order to get roles in Hollywood. She was successful, and unbeknownst at the time, became the first Asian actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role of Kitty Vane in The Dark Angel. She would continue to play white roles such as Catherine Earnshaw Linton in Wuthering Heights, Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Lady Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel, with her true race and ethnicity being uncovered after her death in 1979.

On the other hand, Wong and Hayakawa played various Asian roles in early cinema, with Wong actively seeking positive Chinese and Asian representation. But they were both type casted in Hollywood due to their race. Wong’s roles were mostly sexualized caricatures, and she unwittingly helped create the “dragon lady” and “lotus blossom” stereotypes – the former being an alluring seductress, the latter being the a demure, innocent virgin – that would objectify and fetishize Asian women both on and offscreen for years to come. Meanwhile, Hayakawa portrayed the “exotic Asian love interest” for white actresses. Frustrated by these stereotypes, both of them moved to Europe (at different times) to further their careers, but neither were successful, with Hayakawa facing anti-Japanese sentiment in Germany due to World War II. They both returned to the United States, and while Wong was turned away because of her race, Hayakawa found a new typecast: the “honorable villain”, and he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his role in The Bridge of the River Kwai. Wong starred in stage productions and low-budget movies before being offered a role in Flower Drum Song as a career comeback, but she had to decline the role due to her failing health. In 1960, Wong and Hayakawa became the first Asian entertainers to have their own stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, being inducted in a joint ceremony. Wong and Hayakawa died in 1961 and 1973, respectively. 

Since then, Asian representation in western media has increased significantly, especially in recent years, and they now include Asian actors playing canonically Asian characters who are proud to be who they are. Asian-led movies such as The Joy Luck Club, Mulan, Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Farewell, Turning Red, and Everything Everywhere All at Once have garnered critical acclaim at the box office, and other predominantly Asian TV shows including Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, Warrior, The Mindy Project, Never Have I Ever, American-Born Chinese, have been well-received by audiences and critics alike, proving that Asians can be the stars of their own stories, rather than just be a stereotype.