By Daniel Nelson

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Image by Daniel Johnson

Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang was instrumental in the unsuccessful attempt to block Jonathan Pryce’s appearance (because the producers “couldn’t find any Asian qualified to play the part”), wrote a play about it, Face Value, and then Yellow Face, currently at the National Theatre.

It’s running contemporaneously with a revival of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, and to add more spice, the National Theatre’s current director, Nicholas Hytner, was the original director of Miss Saigon.

You might think that proves Yellow Face is outdated – a play about “a storm in a China cup”, as Miss Saigon’s Broadway producer described the casting row – but that’s not the case.

It retains its resonance, because the issue of cross-racial casting is still live, as is shown by publicity that ensues every time a black actor appears in Shakespeare. In addition, the play is witty, fast-moving and deftly holds various attitudes and issues up to the light before moving on to the next.

Hwang combines real events and quotes with an imagined nemesis, a white actor who becomes an embodiment and spokesman for the “Asian community” (migrant whites in the US are accorded specific nationalities, but Asians and definitely Africans are an undifferentiated mass, defined by continent rather than country of origin).

While the first half is entertaining and absorbing, the second adds an emotional kick as Hwang’s determinedly non-intellectual, My Way-singing father – who rides the American dream from laundromat toiler to bank founder and co-chairs “Republicans for Clinton” – is caught up in a bout of anti-Chinese hysteria, along with other prominent Chinese-Americans.

As the politicians bay for blood, a New York Times journalist sniffing for national disloyalty reveals her prejudice in a verbal slip that conflates the terms Chinese and Chinese-American.

Smart writing, good acting, interesting content: this is top-value theatre.

 

·         Yellow Face is at the temporary theatre formerly known as the Shed (the licence for the name has just expired) at the National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX, until 24 May. Info:  7452 3000/ boxoffice@nationaltheatre.org.uk

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