Michael Hisamoto in “Yellow Face” at Lyric Stage Company of Boston./MARK HOWARD

Playwright David Henry Hwang reveals his demons in ‘Yellow Face’

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Playwright David Henry Hwang reveals his demons in ‘Yellow Face’

Michael Hisamoto in “Yellow Face” at Lyric Stage Company of Boston./MARK HOWARD

In 1990, David Henry Hwang – the Tony Award-winning playwright of “M. Butterfly” – protested the casting of a non-Asian actor (Jonathan Pryce) as the engineer in the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon” and the use of yellowface makeup and prosthetics. Actors Equity initially agreed with the Asian-American dramatist’s objection only to eventually reverse its stance – with Pryce winning a 1991 Tony for the role.

Inspired in part by the “Miss Saigon” controversy, Hwang wrote a media farce dealing with race and identity entitled “Face Value”(1993) that received negative reviews in its pre-Broadway tryout at the Colonial Theatre and closed after eight previews in New York. His insights and views really crystallized in his provocative 2007 play “Yellow Face.” Now this timely work is resonating as much as ever in a riveting revival by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through June 23.

Hwang has described “Yellow Face” as “a memoir – a kind of unreliable memoir.” On the one hand, he identifies here as DHH – his own initials – and chronicles his “Miss Saigon” protest and “Face Value” challenges. At the same time, he has DHH examine his evolving relationship with his Shanghai-born CPA father Henry Yuan Hwang – here called HYH – the actual founder of the Far East National Bank in California.

There also is important attention to anti-Asian- American bias in Congress in the 1990s and outrageous unproven accusations about nuclear secrets against Taiwan-American scientist Wen Ho Lee – who was actually detained for nine months. He was indicted on 59 counts but released on time served when the federal government could not prove the case.

As for the ‘unreliable’ elements, they turn out to be as pivotal as the ‘real’ ones. The key here is a Pirandellia character identified as Marcus G. Dahlman. DHH casts Dahlman as one of the leads in “Face Value.” Does Dahlman possess Eurasian ancestry? There is talk of his being a Jew with Siberian ancestry. There is even talk of one of the Jewish lost tribes ending up in Asia. At one point, Sammy Davis Jr. is cited as Jewish, and DHH points out that Jews are not a race but rather a religious affiliation. Will DHH have to question his own consistency as an Asian-American as doubts about Dahlman’s ancestry grow? Later – as Dahlman takes on Asian roles – even the Thai ruler in “The King and I” – DHH accuses him of being “an ethnic tourist.” Is Dahlman “just another actor running around in yellowface”?

Under Ted Hewlett’s expert direction in Boston, DHH’s complex and multifaceted odyssey as an Asian-American, thoughtful son, and serious writer and activist and the world Hwang depicts are vividly portrayed by six very talented actors. Michael Hisamoto captures DHH’s inner strength and principle as well as his self-doubts and vulnerability. Hisamoto’s exchanges with J.B. Barricklo as proud HYH are moving and revealing. Alexander Holden (originally from Japan) is a standout as Dahlman, alternately concerning and amusing as a self-styled Asian-American spokesperson and enigmatic with DHH.

Jupiter Lê has fine tenacity as NWOAOC. Jenny S. Lee and Mei MacQuarrie move smoothly through a variety of roles in Hwang’s fascinating memoir. Szu-Feng Chen keeps the title concern in theatergoers’ minds with five rear side-by-side bulb-surrounded make-up stations. Megan Reilly’s projection design provides an effective complement to Hwang’s narrative.

At a time when TikTok and AI have become as potentially insidious and dangerous as prejudice and stereotyping, “Yellow Face” has a lot to say about integrity and understanding. The very principled Lyric Stage Company of Boston revival is a must-see staging as Hwang prepares for the Broadway premiere of his important play. Θ

The Lyric Stage Company is at 140 Clarendon St., Boston, For tickets, call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.

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