Monday, August 31, 2009

Sing Out, Ruiz!

At a recent town hall meeting an aggrieved elderly Caucasian woman started sobbing "I want my country back." Several weeks later, an obviously clueless Representative Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas) landed in hot water after stating that the Republican Party was "still looking for the next 'great white hope.'"

While many of us get hearty laughs from the grammatical errors showcased on websites like, it isn't always easy to see things through another person's eyes. Blogger 2Morrowknight's essay No, Not My America, You Mean Our America goes a long way toward reminding people how racial diversity and multiculturalism have made American society what it was, is, and will be.

Living in a large urban environment like New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, one gets used to the presence of a sizable Asian-American community (as well as a substantial Gaysian presence). While both subsets are responsible for impressive contributions to any city's melting pot, they are still plagued by racial stereotypes.

* * * * * * * *
In 1968, afte five brilliant years at the helm of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Carl Reiner wrote and directed an absolutely hilarious stage farce that called for four sets of identical twins. He began writing the play as a project to keep his young secretary busy. In My Anecdotal Life: A Memoir, Reiner describes Something Different as "a play born not out of any deep desire to write but out of sheer boredom -- and not even my own."

Onstage, a narcissistic Jewish playwright (Bob Dishy) and his wife (Linda Lavin) had to argue with their twin sons (one black, one white), who always spoke in unison. You can -- and should --read Reiner's recollections of the play here just to get an idea of how outrageous the out-of-town tryout was compared to the final version of the show. A brilliant comedy writer, Reiner crafted the following classic piece of dialogue between Sheldon "Bud" Nemerov (who is beginning to wonder if his two boys could really be identical twins) and his 10-year-old sons:
"Bud: Close your eyes. What color is your hair?

Bevin & Kevin: Black and red.

Bud: What color are your legs?

Bevin & Kevin: Black and blue."
Something Different played for 111 performances at the Cort Theater, closing on February 24, 1968. On March 9, 1993 (exactly 25 years and 15 days later), David Henry Hwang's ill-fated Face Value premiered on the very same stage. Unfortunately, Hwang's play closed after eight previews and never officially opened on Broadway.

This weekend Theatreworks presented the Northern California premiere of Hwang's political satire, Yellow Face, which was inspired by the playwright's dispute with Actors' Equity Association over Cameron Mackintosh's casting of Jonathan Pryce to star in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Of equal importance to the play are Hwang's experiences trying to bring Face Value to life. Described by its creator as a mockumentary, Yellow Face earned Hwang his third Obie Award for Playwrighting and, for the third time, made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Francis Jue and Pun Bandhu (Photo by: David Allen)

In his play, Hwang tries to strike a balance between the challenges faced by Asian-American actors who find themselves deprived of unemployment opportunities when roles originally written for Asians are either rewritten for Caucasians or cast with white actors who have "Yellowed up" and the bizarre realities faced by any actor (Asian or Caucasian) who is trying to find steady work. As Yellow Face attempts to wrestle with the shifting sands of racism in our society, Hwang deftly uses common assumptions about racial identity to comically bludgeon certain stereotypes to death.
  • Francis Jue portrays 19 different characters ranging from Hwang's father (a Chinese banker who dreams of being Jimmy Stewart) to Bernard Jacobs who, for many years, was President of The Shubert Organization.
  • Thomas Azar plays Marcus Dahlman, a Caucasian actor who is accidentally miscast by Hwang in an Asian role. After Hwang suggests that Marcus change his last name from Dahlman to Gee, the actor goes on to enjoy great success in a variety of Asian-identified roles (even starring in a tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's beloved musical, The King and I) and becomes active in the Asian-American community. To cover for the shame of having assumed Marcus was part Asian, Hwang concocts a story about the actor being a Siberian Jew, stressing Siberia's proximity to Asia.
  • A reporter from The New York Times, who claims to have no agenda, warns Hwang that he already has enough information to write an article about the congressional investigation being led by Senator Fred Thompson into Hwang's father's banking practices. The reporter suddenly becomes very defensive when Hwang threatens to retaliate by making the reporter a character in an upcoming play.
  • With the exception of the two men portraying Hwang and Marcus, the other actors in the cast must quickly rotate through a series of roles that may require them to portray people of different racial backgrounds as well as both male and female characters.
  • When a newsman can't understand that the allegiance of a Chinese-born immigrant who has become a naturalized citizen (or a Chinese-American who was born in the United States) would be to America -- and not to China -- the playwrights asks if he would like to be labeled as a "White American" and have his loyalties come under similar scrutiny.
  • Would-be cameos by familiar celebrities who have played important roles in Hwang's life (including Joseph Papp, Lea Salonga, B.D. Wong, Jane Krakowski, and Lily Tomlin,) pepper the script, floating in and out of the narration with dizzying rapidity.
In his director's notes, Robert Kelley observes that:
"In a country still shocked and awed by the election of an African American president, still absorbing the appointment of a projects-born Latina to the Supreme Court, still contemplating a not-too-distant future in which Caucasians are no longer the majority, it is fair to say that changing attitudes about race have become a primary focus of American culture. From the devastation of Native Americans to the debilitating conflicts over slavery and discrimination, from the abuse of Chinese railroad laborers to the internment of Japanese Americans and the struggles of Chicano farm workers, racial relations have long been the most agonizing flaw in America's character.

By acknowledging and examining issues of racial and cultural identity with a unique blend of irony, comedy, and drama, David Henry Hwang has become America's best-known Asian-American playwright. Having lived long at the crossroads of Asian activism and American opportunity, Hwang offers a unique perspective on our times, finding them amusing, enraging, and occasionally inspiring. As we share his struggle to reconcile individual cultural identity with the beckoning forces of melting-pot America, we do so knowing that there are no easy answers."
Marcus (Thomas Azar) and "DHH" (Pun Bandhu)
(Photo by: David Allen)

Although told in meticulous detail (Hwang refuses to identify which incidents are true and which are fictional), if you're not a devout theater queen or Asian-American activist, many of the references in Yellow Face may fly by you in the kind of dizzying dramatic whoosh that makes you feel like you are on a roller coaster grasping for the safety bar. Under Kelly's deft guidance, the seven actors race through a seemingly huge cast of characters until even Hwang can't seem to figure out whether he is for or against racial stereotypes (sometimes they work to his benefit), whether to fight for racially sensitive casting or support the sanctity of "artistic freedom."

Since many of the scenes written by Hwang are little more than dramatic renditions of telephone calls, emails, and newspaper clippings, any production of Yellow Face has to move at a fairly rapid clip. Director Robert Kelley keeps his cast moving swiftly about J.B. Wilson's unit set as the action shifts between New York, San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston, and the remote province of Guizhou, China (where farmers alternate between catching fish with their bare hands and talking on cell phones).

In addition to the solid performances from Thomas Azar as Marcus, Pun Bandhu as the playwright, and Francis Jue (in a wide variety of roles), there were strong contributions from Howard Swain (as Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow, Senator John Kerry, and others), Amy Resnick as Jane Krakowski (and numerous other characters), Tina Chilip, and Robert Ernst, who doubled as the Announcer and the mysterious reporter from The New York Times.

* * * * * * *
While Hwang's play uses misplaced political priorities, race-baiting, and mistaken identities as tools with which to demystify and better understand one's place in a racially hypersensitive society, Frameline's newest DVD, Asian Queer Shorts, includes one film that explores racism from a different perspective. Raymond Yeung's Yellow Fever (1998) explores the delicate issue of gay Asian men who only want to date Caucasians -- men for whom the concept of sex with "sticky rice" is one step short of incest.

Yeung (who, in addition to being Chairman of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Film Festival also wrote and directed 2006's Cut Sleeve Boys) focuses in on the romantic frustrations of a pissy Asian Brit named Montgomery (Adrian Pang), whose closest friend Ernest (Ivan Heng) -- an overly dramatic and grandly pretentious opera queen -- is dying of loneliness. A hardcore cynic, Ernest warns Monty that "Every fairy tale has the same ending: Charles fucks Camilla and Diana gets bulimia!"

No matter how much he fights it, the racial preferences that keep haunting Monty can be paraphrased as:
"One potato, two potato, three potato, four.
Why isn't some nice rice queen knocking on my door?
Five potato, six potato, seven potato, eight.
Why can't I find a handsome potato to date?"
When Monty acquires a new neighbor who is originally from Taiwan, he is incredibly rude to Jai Ming (Gerald Chew). As his attempts to pick up a white man in gay bars continue to fail, he eventually succumbs to Jai Ming's gentle hospitality.

Gerald Chew and Adrian Pang in Yellow Fever

* * * * * * *
In Lucky Kuswandi's 15-minute short from Indonesia entitled Still, a lonely young gay man roams a small beach town as he struggles to understand his confusing relationship with his father. Backed by a wonderfully haunting score by Kelly Salloum, Still begins with a poem written by its star, Jason Woo:
"if we were fishes,
we would be those multi-colored ones
un abashed
un ashamed of our shimmering
gold, silver, violet scales

if we were fishes,
we would be the prettiest ones
with elaborate fins
those fan-like fins that graced the water

if we were fishes,
we would be like those
living in a bowl
all on display for everyone to see"
Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
Directed by Mark Reyes, Last Full Show tells the story of a young gay man from a privileged background who is driven to and from his private school in the Philippines each day by the family chauffeur, Bert (Nanding Josef). The film begins as two sex hounds stand in the back of a movie theater, watching men cruise. When Jess (Jeremy Aguado) challenges Gardo (Sugus Legaspi) to see if he can get lucky with young Crispin (Francis Villaneuva), he's stunned to see Gardo strike up a friendship with a boy who is easily twenty years younger than him.

As Crispin and Gardo get to know each other better while riding buses and dining in restaurants, Bert becomes suspicious when he notices Gardo wearing a family heirloom that Crispin has given his friend. Reyes' sweet and poignant short, which captures the innocence of a young gay man's first steps into the world of cruising for sex, gets a silent boost from the hilarious performance by Mae Paneer as the theater's "ticket lady."

Francis Villaneuva and Sugus Legaspi in Last Full Show

* * * * * * *
Kevin Choi's 13-minute black and white short, Dissolution of Bodies, finds two handsome Asian academics cuddling in bed as they discuss philosophy, monogamy, Nietzsche and narcissism. Passion and politics take turns with drama and desire as the camera captures surprising moments of physical and intellectual intimacy. Accompanied by Ronen Landa's haunting musical score for taiko drums and a shakuhachi, the film benefits from Manfred Reiff's beautiful cinematography.

Kenneth Lee and Leon Le in Dissolution of Bodies

* * * * * * *
Anyone who has had the good fortune to see Jun-Ik Lee's masterpiece, King and the Clown already knows that the period costumes from Korea's Joseon Dynasty offer a rich visual treat. In 2004, director Hyun-Jin Park shot a 13-minute gay short which is set in the Joseon Dynasty. A Crimson Mark puts a gay twist on a historical narrative and frames it so beautifully that one watches with a sense of wonderment. Here's the trailer for Frameline's new DVD:

No comments: