The title of the Los Altos Stage Company’s latest production at Bus Barn Theater may shock some people. “Yellow Face” is the slang term for when a non-Asian actor puts on makeup to take on an Asian role.
Directed by Jeffrey Lo, the play asks what makes someone an Asian – and what makes him or her an American – in times of political and creative tension.
Wes Gabrillo stars as DHH, a parody of “Yellow Face” playwright David Henry Hwang. Gabrillo plays the part with lively energy. DHH accidentally casts a white American named Marcus (Drew Reitz) to star in a role he scripted expressly for an Asian-American. For DHH, who sees himself as a leader of theater’s Asian community, this is quite the conundrum.
Hwang’s play is full of theater history and meta-text questions that would be confusing in a lesser director’s hands. Lo does a fantastic job of not getting bogged down in the details; he instead focuses on the timelessness of Stanford University alumnus Hwang’s work. DHH is uncomfortable with being both a civil rights leader and an artist. DHH is embarrassed by this father, HYH (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias), a successful banker who believes in the American dream. DHH is outright horrified by Marcus, a white guy who becomes a greater role model to Asian-Americans than DHH himself.
Reitz seems to channel Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer character on the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” playing Marcus as an earnest doofus who gracefully outshines DHH professionally and romantically in the humorous first act. When politicians crack down on the Asian-American community in the somber second act, Marcus realizes that his secret – that he is not Asian – could humiliate not only himself, but also his best friends. He handles it much better than DHH, who desires nothing more than Marcus’ downfall.
DHH has several foils: Marcus, HYH, politicians and ultimately himself. Gabrillo lets the character grow without falling into Shakespearean soliloquy. As the audience learns more about his struggles to figure out where he fits into American society – buffeted by the pain suffered by his antagonists – the audience comes to empathize with the protagonist of “Yellow Face.”
If this sounds moody and introspective, that could not be further from the truth. “Yellow Face” has great pacing and a 1990s-era hip-hop soundtrack that balances between snappy and solemn. It is, at its core, a really fun glimpse into the mind of someone with self-confidence issues. Fans of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will love it. Hwang puts his signature on the themes of community, immigrant families and accepting one’s “Face.” The play challenges viewers, but it gives them a whole lot of fun while asking tough questions.
“Yellow Face” is scheduled to run through Feb. 19 at Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave. Performances are set for 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets ($18-$36) and more information, call 941-0551 or visit losaltosstage.org.