Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington

09/03/2017 - 18/03/2017

Production Details


In March, Red Scare Theatre Company will stage the New Zealand premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face. Cassandra Tse will direct the show, having recently returned from an internship at Signature Theatre in New York City where Hwang is a resident playwright.

When Tse first picked up Yellow Face she “couldn’t believe how funny it was, how intelligent and nuanced its politics were.” Her experience with Asian theatre in New Zealand is that it was usually “very serious, focused almost exclusively on tradition, mythology and ancient culture, and completely unrelatable to someone like me, a fourth-generation Chinese-Pākeha New Zealander who has never been to China.” Yellow Face was as a complete counterpoint for her; its ability to be “contemporary, witty, and not above poking fun at itself” meant that it was vital to bring this work to New Zealand. 

A 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Yellow Face is a deeply funny examination of race and identity in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ society. The play follows a fictionalized version of David Henry Hwang (Alex Rabina) who inadvertently casts a Caucasian, Marcus G Dahlman (James Cain), as an Asian character.

Rabina said he was surprised “when I realized that Yellow Face is my first role where I actually play an Asian. And not only an Asian, but an Asian that isn’t defined as an immigrant or foreigner. He’s sarcastic and politically motivated, but also insecure and immature at times.”

The play features a diverse cast from all over New Zealand. Aucklander Benjamin Teh, who recently featured in Flat 3’s popular webseries Friday Night Bites, stars as Henry Yuan Hwang, David’s father.

Matt Loveranes, whose play The Showgirl was staged by Red Scare in 2015, says that “opportunities like these come rarely for actors of colour, to be represented in a script of this quality with real humanity and to be able to play different characters with various quirks and foibles was too good to pass up.” As Loveranes says, the simple act of casting people of colour and allowing their characters to be funny and flawed is revolutionary and sorely needed. “As an Asian artist in New Zealand,” says performer Ariadne Baltazar, “it feels like aren’t that many opportunities”. Baltazar graduated from Toi Whakaari Drama School last year and Yellow Face is her first production since. 

”With Asian characters still being played by white actors in Hollywood today,” says Rabina, “this play is as relevant as ever.”

The play also features Catherine Zulver and Mike Bryant (reuniting with Red Scare following 2013’s Right Dishonourable) and an innovative design by Lucas Neal, James Ruscoe, Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink and Patrick Barnes. Altogether they’re proud to present Yellow Face, a play that aims to explode our definitions of culture, identity and ethnicity.

Whitireia Performance Centre
9th-18th March at 7:30pm.
Tickets are $18 for concession, $20 for full price.

This production is funded by Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Theatre ,

Funny, engaging, welcoming, intelligent and relevant

Review by Zoe Joblin 10th Mar 2017

What is Yellow Face? It is a 2007 play by David Henry Hwang. It is the offensive portrayal by white actors of Asian characters, same as Black Face, sometimes by literally changing their features as in the case of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is an exploration of race in modern America, of activism, politics and personal identity, of cultural appropriation, love and lies.

Director Cassandra Tse has created a production of Hwang’s complicated and fascinating script that is clever and captivating. Hwang, a Tony award winning playwright, is best known for writing M Butterfly, an exploration of race and identity, and as an activist for Asian American rights particularly in the sphere of artistic representation.

Yellow Face, first performed in 2007, follows Hwang (Alex Rabina) as his own protagonist through a semi-autobiographical account of some of the experiences he has had in the public sphere in relation to race. Hwang narrates and participates in scenes made up of emails, phone calls, media clippings and face to face conversations which track the events of the play.

Through clever use of the character Marcus G Dahlman (James Cain), he explores what race really is –a feeling, an history, a love, a burden? – and brings up themes of cultural appropriation by exposing a white man who longs to fit into Asian community, alongside his own father’s account of the desire to emigrate to and build a life in America; to live his ‘real life’.

Tse’s direction is a feat as the script is non-linear, featuring many characters which represent an homogenisation of the critical eye of the culture Hwang exists in. The sound design is effectively used to set scenes, such as with traditional Chinese music and crowd sounds. However, they are merely a backdrop to the live soundscapes created in moments of crowds rallying in protest or support of Hwang’s cause; the use of the ensemble to express cohesive emotion such as anger is powerful and well directed in these moments.

The blocking is at times messy, detracting from the world very minimally, but I do notice a strength in the way some characters hold the stage and I hope that the smaller characters find their energetic boundaries within the white box as the season progresses. It is difficult to bring one’s full self to a small part; the ensemble brings everything they have to the characterisations but it would help to reduce the confusion of flurrying scenes if there was more time taken and awareness of space in entrances and exits.

Whether portraying American senators, art critics and agents, famous actors or Asian American activists, the ensemble gives wonderfully rich character performances, convincing us of the stance of the personality they are embodying in Hwang’s world.

The only substantial female role is played by Ariadne Baltazar, as both Hwang and Marcus’ love interest Leah. This is a tokenistic and dated feature of the script but Baltazar handles the emotional stakes of her character with gravitas. Other members of the ensemble include Catherine Zulver, Mike Bryant, Matt Loveranes and Benjamin Teh, all of whom have clearly worked hard to create character definition and each pulls off a variety of exceptional accents and physicality. Benjamin Teh brings immense humour and heart to his portrayal of Hwang’s father and suspected Chinese spy Wen Ho Lee.

The most beautiful moments for me are ones of intimacy among the hustle.  These are achieved with spot lighting and phone calls, mostly between Hwang and his father or ex-girlfriend. One that sticks with me is a late-night drunken phone call which Huang makes to Leah, his ex, in which he is drunk and she has just woken up. Both actors give a convincing performance of alone-ness which, combined, evokes a strong sense of the hidden inner life of the protagonist, not just the critical exterior.

Another strong theme is the character Marcus writing to Hwang from a small Chinese village. This setting is created through a spotlight on Cain at the back of the stage with traditional Chinese music called ‘The Big Song’ playing under his words. Although satirical of the white man looking for belonging in a Chinese village, it is nonetheless beautiful as Cain’s grounded performance provides a nice change of pace to the bustling of the American spaces.  

The production design is well-thought out and effective. The simple and striking set is designed by Lucas Neal and provides a solid playing space which suits the theatre; a theme of newspaper-covered props and yellow and white lighting give a strong sense of modernity and publicity. The costumes are black and white tops and bottoms which change in clothing item across the cast, the white of the costumes is tie-dyed with blue. Although this a strong look I would have loved to see costume changes to delineate the smaller characters more effectively.

When the lights are lowered the set and actors look incredibly beautiful with its asymmetrical, compass-like shapes. It feels like a playground, a stage, a modern California home, an internal reverie. I would have loved to see more low lighting to change the space to a greater degree though I appreciate that the loudness of the bold white walls fits the loudness of the scenes.  

The play is very funny and easy to engage with. It is welcoming and intelligent and its topics are very relevant. The playwright is clearly aiming for a very American audience and seeks to show incredibly clearly what his truth is; this is the power of a play and Yellow Face speaks a lot to the place of Art.

Hwang does and doesn’t answer his own questions throughout the story in that he does not make a moral statement on whether one can claim their heritage falsely or in fact rediscover it. But his personal and political journey is fascinating and the man’s decision to wear his honesty as his ‘face’, whatever that may look like, is universal even if the struggle to get there is not. 

Yellow Face plays at Whitireia Performance Centre until the 18th of March. Tickets are available here and are a bargain for such a polished and engaging show, I highly recommend it!  


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