Yellow Face, a Theatre Mu Production at The Guthrie Theater

Randy Reyes and Kim Kivens in The Guthrie presentation of a Mu Performing Arts production of Yellow Face, by David Henry Hwang. Photo by Michal Daniel.

David Henry Hwang calls the question very early in Yellow Face (produced by the always worthwhile Theatre Mu in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, through Feb 21, “Is race a meaningless construct?” Who, the play asks, is more authentically Chinese? The successful American whose Chinese ancestry is impeccable or the white man who travels to China and spends months in a small village, surrounding himself with the rich language and culture? Indeed, what is ethnicity? The way we look? Allegiance to a country? Politics? Does it come down to, simply, what we believe about ourselves? But what about the beliefs of the people who look at us?

This is a complicated and hugely important question here in the age of Obama and without providing us with easy answers (an impossibility), Hwang asks it often and in many ways. This fascinating play struts and frets, sometimes a comedy, sometimes a radical melodrama, sometimes proceeding with Living Newspaper theatricality. The major character is David Henry Hwang (called DHH). Initially, the play deals with the Miss Saigon controversy (in which the producer chose to cast a white actor as a Vietnamese) and then with DHH’s unwitting (or is it?) use of a white actor as the lead in his Face Value. His reaction to the disturbing implication of this becomes increasingly hysterical. Rather less successfully, the play deals with the Wen Ho Lee controversy (the Chinese scientist falsely, as it turned out, accused of espionage), with cynical GOP politicians questioning the provenance of political donations. A rich, sprawling play. Self-referential (obviously) but also smart and passionate and probing. Hwang’s dramaturgical instincts are excellent and the piece moves forward with assurance.

Luckily for us, the play has a gorgeous emotional center: the relationship between DHH and his father, the successful California banker Henry Yuan Hwang. HYH anchors his often excitable son, providing him (and us) with a comic foil and wonderful emotional richness. At the end, when HYH tells his son that he’s dying, David reacts by placing a quiet hand on his father’s shoulder. Understated and intense, this is terrific acting and writing. Very moving. Both actors, Randy Reyes as DHH and Kurt Kwan as HYH are wonderful, amiable, understated yet fiercely intelligent. They make the play work.

For this reviewer, though, the revelation was Matt Rein as Marcus G, the white actor who recasts himself as Asian, playing leads, first in DHH’s spectacular flop Face Value and, later, in The King And I. Rein is marvelously effective, never cynical or self-centered, the purest artist in the play. Great stuff.

All the performers in the ensemble (Wade Vaughn, Rose Le Tran, Allen Malicsi, Erika Danielle Crane, Kim Kivens, Don Eitel) are top notch. Rick Shiomi directs with a sure hand and with an excellent group of designers: Joseph Stanley (sets), Wu Chen Khoo (lights), Forest Godfrey (sound) and Cana Potter (costumes). His plays always display delicate but undeniable power.

So check this one out. It will be a fascinating contrast to Hwang’s glitzy M. Butterfly, to be produced in April on the G’s big Wurtele Stage. The latter play is more commercial, more successful; but this, I will bet, is the one that will stay with you.

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