A look at “Yellow Face” in American entertainment


Randy Reyes (DHH) and Matt Rein (Marcus G. Dahlman) in Mu Performing Arts’ production of Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, directed by Rick Shiomi. Photo by Stephen Geffre.

Do you remember the show “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine? You know the one where he has to walk on rice paper and pass all sorts of tests to be a true shaolin monk? And then he goes on a quest in the West to find his half-brother?

Did you know Bruce Lee was passed over for the part?

I didn’t. Of course it doesn’t really surprise me. “Sign of the times… that was the early 70s… wouldn’t happen today.” Or at least, so I thought, until I read David Henry Hwang’s play “Yellow Face.”

The play, which opens this weekend at the Guthrie theater (in a production staged by Theater Mu) is based in part on true tales from Hwang’s own career. And it reveals just how much race continues to play a very frustrating role in casting in American media… especially for Asian-Americans.

A quick survey of American media reveals the truth to this. Both Asian-American males and females tend to be relegated to the role of “side-kick.” Typically they are cast as the computer expert, or the doctor. They are quiet, good-looking, and have excellent skills in the martial arts.

So what’s wrong with that, you ask? Heck, I’d love to be good-looking, have a high paying job and a black belt to boot!

The problem is that our portrayal of Asian-Americans is extremely narrow. There is no “average Asian-American family” on TV. What Bill Cosby did for African-Americans (which, regardless of what you think of the show, was to put their lives center stage) has yet to be accomplished for Asian-Americans.

Margaret Cho gave it a shot with her 1994 TV program “All American Girl.” Complaints from network executives that her face was “too round” led her to practically starve herself in the weeks leading up to production (resulting in kidney failure), and at various stages she was told she was being either “too asian” or “not asian enough.” The show lasted barely a year.

Today we’re faced with a new version of type-casting. Japanese-Americans and Korean-Americans are being roped in to play the roles of “exotic” Japanese or Korean characters, as network television attempts to appear more worldly.

Daniel Dae Kim was raised in both South Korea and Pennsylvania, and trained in acting at New York University, but his character on “Lost” spent most of the first two seasons speaking only Korean.

Actor Masi Oka has lived in Los Angeles since he was six, but you’ll only hear him speaking Japanese or English with a strong Japanese accent on the show “Heroes”(except for a couple of rare exceptions involving “alternate realities”).

So while Warner Bros executives justified passing over Bruce Lee for the lead in “Kung Fu” because his accent was too thick, we now demand fluent english speakers to mix up their “L”s with their “R”s. What gives?

This Saturday at 4pm, in conjunction with the opening of “Yellow Face,” I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on just this topic at the Guthrie Theater. On the panel will be playwright David Henry Hwang, actor Randy Reyes, journalist Tom Lee, Josephine Lee from the Asian American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, and Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce.

I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating conversation.