Yellow Face (NT Shed)

David Henry Hwang’s play explores the impact race has had on the East Asian experience in America

Kevin Shen and Ben Starr in Yellow Face
Kevin Shen and Ben Starr in Yellow Face
© Simon Annand

Yellow Face, a 2007 play about ethnicity and racism in Chinese American theatre by David Henry Hwang, author of M Butterfly, transfers to The Shed intact, and with the same cast, from the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, one year on.

And there’s an added twist to a story already bristling with ironies and contradictions when the playwright character DHH (Kevin Shen is a dead ringer for the author) joins the American Equity protest against the 1991 Broadway casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon; that show, now revived in the West End, was originally directed by NT boss Nicholas Hytner.

Pryce, of course, had played the role in London without controversy, or what producer Cameron Mackintosh described in New York as "A tempest in an Oriental teapot." And fans and insiders will enjoy the brief appearances of Bernie Jacobs, Frank Rich and Joe Papp as Pryce’s taped-up eyes and jaundiced complexion give the actors’ union what they describe as their "Rosa Parks moment."

But the surprise, and very funny, development of Hwang’s play shows how his own high-mindedness bites back when he inadvertently casts a non-Oriental white actor in one of his own plays and beefs up his ethnic identity as not only Asian but Jewish and Siberian as well.

The point being that we all come from somewhere else and once you start insisting on racial purity and authenticity you’re beginning to go down the Third Reich route and, as someone bitterly remarks, "Two Wongs don’t make a white."

Things become even more complicated when DHH suffers a major flop in the theatre, the non-Oriental white actor (hilariously done by a brow-furrowed Ben Starr, with a quick cameo as the bare-chested King of Siam in The King and I) becomes a committed campaigner, and the playwright’s father, an immigrant banker (David Yip), is embroiled in a Republican party election-financing controversy.

Alex Sims’ smart production, played on a raised, illuminated dais under a canopy of Chinese lanterns, creates a rising mood of hysteria over "the yellow peril" while the quick-changing cast of seven – including Gemma Chan, Davina Perera, Christy Meyer and John Schwab – nail down their stereotypes with telling detail and finesse.

After last year’s outstanding China-related plays, Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica at the Almeida and, in this same NT Shed venue, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness, Yellow Face is a satirical and theatrical rider to the larger political and global issues in those plays; but it’s a delightful gem in its own right, too.

Yellow Face continues at the NT Shed until 24 May