‘Yellow Face’ Explores Identity Across Generations, Continents

‘Yellow Face’ Explores Identity Across Generations, Continents

“I’m always thinking about, ‘why are we doing this play now?’,” actor Michael Hisamoto told the Sampan of the Lyric Stage production of “Yellow Face.”

Hisamoto has a key role in the play, written by David Henry Hwang. The semi-autobiographical show is about the playwright, who appears in the play and is the narrator. It’s about Hwang’s life, his father, and the period of the 1990s and the 2000s. It covers big themes like the “yellow peril” and the Asian scares, even campaign finance scandals.

“He is trying to tell all that through a vessel, a character, Marcus G. Dahlman. He is a white person that gets mistaken for Asian, embraces that he is Asian American, and it all becomes a conversation about who gets to decide what your race is, where you belong in the community, and eventually working toward a future in which race really does not matter, in a positive way, and in which people can be who they want to be,” said actor Alexander Holden, who plays Dahlman.

Sampan spoke with several people involved in the Lyric Stage production, including Ted Hewlett, and actors Hisamoto and Holden, to understand the show and its bigger message.

And, to answer Hisamoto’s question, of why now?

“It’s funny because on most days in rehearsal, we would be able to say something in one of the lines, and it was like, ‘My God, I just read that in The New York Times today!’” said Hewlett.

“The conversations about Chinese people being able or not able to buy land in Florida and the difference between Chinese Americans vs. China, that those are not one and the same thing. And that Americans can come from everywhere and all walks of life. That also doesn’t mean that we don’t have global competition and, frankly, enemies in the world as far as political rivalries and ongoing conflicts and war and all that. But there has been such a history of vilifying Americans who come from whatever our current enemy is, whether that’s often China now or Asia in general in the time period of the play, or Japanese Americans in World War Two. So, there have been a lot of timely news articles that it’s like ‘Wow, we’re still having this conversation through a slightly different prism.’”

Playwright Hwang, added Hewlett, “does a great job of poking holes in a lot of tropes and making fun of people, most certainly himself, but there’s a lot of seriousness underneath the jokes as well.”

He said he was originally concerned it was going to be challenging to stage and direct the play, because it is not traditionally written, colliding wildly across space and time, jumping forward and back.

“It goes in and out of sort of what I already said about the reality vs. the fiction, living with that and it takes place across the United States and across continents. It was going to need to have a set and costumes. All the technical elements needed to be able to support these wildly changing locations,” said the director.

The show has only six actors, some of whom play 15 to 20 roles each, creating technical obstacles such as switching in and out of costumes.

The production also challenged the actors.

“I was reading all about what was going on with TikTok and especially the interviews of the CEO, and thinking about this whole question of what does it mean to be assumed to be Chinese if you’re working for a Chinese company but not a Chinese national and these kinds of things,” said Hisamoto, of the controversy around the video-sharing application.

“But as we’ve explored the play, it’s really kind of honed into how these seemingly microaggressions can start to affect us on a more personal level, how they can cause fractures within the community, in our interpersonal relationships. So, the thing that I’ve been really focusing on in the play is actually my relationship with my father in the play. And that’s meant a lot, because there’s a lot of mirrors with my own life of how … what’s my relationship with my own father? How do we communicate? And what were his dreams for the world, and how do I either take that mantle on or leave it behind?”

Holden says he personally connects to the production because he is half Asian, half white.

“A lot of times I do face these questions about, ‘what are you really?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where do you identify yourself more as Asian or more white?’ And my standpoint for this play is, I identify as both. And I feel like there is a world in which I can fully identify as both. I’m not more Asian than white, I’m just Asian and white at the same time.”

“The general audience,” he said, “will probably take away from this play kind of being enlightened about or kind of have a different perspective or see a different perspective in how they perceive race or how they can kind of interact with people of those different mainly Asian races. I feel like this is a pretty important conversation that’s happening right now, and we’re bringing a perspective to that conversation that is pretty unique to us in our all-Asian production.”

He added, “I really do feel like this is a special play. I know we do Asian theater. Asian shows seem to be somewhat of a staple in the Boston scene, but I feel like this one is a very special one, very topical. I hope that everyone comes to see it and kind of take away whatever new perspective that they can from this play.”

The play runs from through June 23 at the Lyric Stage in Boston. Tickets for “Yellow Face” can be purchased at www.lyricstage.com.