In 'Yellow Face,' the personal is political

Los Altos Stage Company presents David Henry Hwang's semi-autobiographical play

"What I love most in the theater is honesty," David Henry Hwang states, with no small irony, in his semi-autobiographical play "Yellow Face." The show encompasses issues of racism, immigrant rights, alleged election interference by foreign powers, show business and investigative journalism. But despite the wide scope, the play, presented now by Los Altos Stage Company, is also deeply personal to its author and offers an odd -- but successful -- tonal blend of comedy and seriousness, fact and fiction.

"Yellow Face" has its roots in reality, with Hwang getting meta about his role as an artist, activist and icon in the Asian-American community. Back in 1988, Hwang (who -- local-connection-alert -- earned his bachelor's degree from Stanford University) became the first Asian-American playwright to win a Tony Award, for "M. Butterfly." In the years following, Hwang gained notoriety for speaking out against the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white actor from Wales, in one of the main Asian roles in the musical "Miss Saigon" (acting in "yellow face"). Hwang then turned this casting controversy into fodder for his next play, the critical and financial flop "Face Value." In "Yellow Face," the character of Hwang (identified in the program as DHH, played by Wes Gabrillo), explores this self history through flashbacks and fourth-wall-breaking narration. DHH's play-within-a-play leads to further complications, as he ironically and inadvertently casts a white actor (Marcus G. Dahlman, played by Drew Reitz) as an Asian-American character in his own production, then tries frantically to cover it up (memorably suggesting that Marcus, with his Russian-Jewish background, might, perhaps have some Siberian heritage and should consider going by Marcus "Gee"). Awkward hilarity ensues as Marcus, embracing his new identity, throws himself into the Asian-American community, relishing his role as a cultural spokesperson. "I was an Asian role model back when you were still Caucasian," an outraged and jealous DHH snaps to his accidental protege.

Meanwhile, we catch glimpses of DHH's relationship with his father (Henry Hwang, identified in the program as HYH and played by Lawrence-Michael C. Arias), a larger-than-life figure who immigrated to the U.S. from China at a young age and eventually became a successful businessman, opening the first federally chartered Chinese-American bank. HYH is the American Dream personified: inspired by Hollywood stars, modeling his persona after Frank Sinatra and firm in his belief that with hard work and perseverance, anyone can get ahead, no matter their background.

Over the course of the play, the tone takes a turn from satirical to somber, as HYH, DHH and even Marcus, alongside Asian-Americans across the U.S., find themselves the target of a racist witch hunt after making donations to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, accused of using Chinese money to influence the election. We also learn about the brutal interrogation and unjust imprisonment of Taiwanese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, falsely accused of being a spy for China.

With director Jeffrey Lo at the helm, "Yellow Face" is a fascinating trip into the mind of an important modern American artist.

Casting the show must be an interesting experience, since the play itself deals so much with the issue of racial typecasting. Los Altos Stage Company has done a fine job with Gabrillo in the lead as DHH. Hwang's script pulls no punches in characterizing his own flaws and weaknesses in a humorous way, and Gabrillo is able to gracefully switch from slapstick moments to heartfelt ones. Reitz as Marcus has an appealing Chris Pratt quality: amiably doofy but as well-meaning as he is opportunistic. Arias, as HYH, struggles a bit with his Chinese-American accent but gives a moving performance as HYH evolves from stereotypical comic relief to the immigrant who is ultimately heartbroken with disappointment over the way he and his community are treated by the adopted country he loves so much. A handful of talented ensemble players get plenty of stage time in a dizzying array of roles, including Broadway producers and actors (Hwang gets deep into name dropping), U.S. Senators and more, while Judith Miller serves as "announcer" and a nefarious New York Times reporter trying to dig up dirt on Hwang's father (this character is cheekily referred to as NWOAOC -- Name Withheld On Advice Of Council).

"Yellow Face" weaves its plot threads together to create an ambitious and provocative exploration of issues of race and identity in contemporary America, as seen through Hwang's unique, if unreliable, perspective.

What: "Yellow Face"

Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos

When: Through Feb. 19, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.

Cost: $18-$36

Info: Go to Los Altos Stage Company

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