It's Good to Be Bad; It's Good to Be Good; It's ALL Good

Posted by Prince Gomolvilas
ON Friday, May 25, 2007
I'm usually accused of rank self-indulgence (see JUKEBOX STORIES or, well, this blog), but David Henry Hwang, an American theater pioneer and an icon in the Asian-American arts community, outdoes me once again. Maybe that's why he has an entire theater named after him (East West Players' home bears his moniker), and all I get is a poster hung up over the men's bathroom (Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love). You see, Hwang, who won a Tony Award for M. Butterfly, writes himself into his new play, Yellow Face, which just kicked off its world premiere run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, whose multiple rejection letters are stacked in a drawer within arm's reach in case I'm feeling too happy. (In all fairness, the Taper's now-defunct Asian Theatre Workshop presented a staged reading of my debut play, Big Hunk, in 1997, which directly led to my first professional production—at EWP.)

Yellow Face's main character is named David Henry Hwang (played by Hoon Lee), and the play mixes true events (the Miss Saigon casting controversy, the Wen Ho Lee espionage debacle, and Hwang's father's involvement in a banking scandal) with completely invented ones in order to ask tough questions about identity politics, artistic responsibility, America's continued mistrust of "foreigners," defining one's own culture, and, the ultimate inquiry, "who am I"? Indeed, the set consists merely of some chairs and a huge mirror, in which the characters and the audience are to contemplate whether what they see in the mirror is really what they get. [SPOILER ALERT!] When the mirror comes apart near the end, what we're left with is an empty frame—as empty as an artist's canvas. [SPOLIER ALERT OVER!] My favorite line in any Woody Allen movie is from Bullets Over Broadway: "The artist creates his own moral universe." That line is applicable here as well, as Hwang seems to be suggesting that identity—even racial identity—has always, ultimately, been self-defined. And this act of self-definition is, perhaps, an effort far more complicated and far more artistic than any work of art.

The greatest and most influential writers have always declared that writing about the specific is how you best explore the universal. It is so true in Yellow Face. They play's unabashed specificity seems like it is speaking directly to me, Prince Gomolvilas, personally, but it soon spirals into a story that encompasses so much, and I can't help but think this work will have a significant impact on the cultural landscape. This is a play of ideas. And it's heady, sure, but it's not without its emotional merits. The downfall of Marcus, a Caucasian Jew who builds a successful acting career (and a sense of belonging) by pretending to be Eurasian, and Hwang's relationship to his disillusioned father are heartbreaking. (Marcus is played by Peter Scanavino, who I have decided should father my children. By the way, the list of people who should father my children is long. Looooong. One day, I shall publish it. One day.)

If you plan to buy tickets to Yellow Face, use the promo code provided by East West Players because 10% of the ticket price will benefit EWP.

Last night's performance of Yellow Face seemed to be APA night or something because the Asians were everywhere! Damn, we are taking over! Noel Alumit (Talking to the Moon novelist) was unusually nice to me, which is a surprise since he enjoys verbally abusing me in public; Feo Chin (The Mikado Project actor) was looking less gangsta than he usually does; Elaine Kao (Red Doors actor) seems to show up at all the same events I do; and Arthur Dong (Coming Out Under Fire filmmaker) remembered me from years ago, when I was peddling my wares (my plays!) in New York.

After the show, I waited around for Tzi Ma to come out. He's fantastic in the show, playing Hwang's father to full comic effect and Wen Ho Lee to full tragic effect (as well as great imitations of BD Wong and Margaret Cho). I always thought Ma was a great comedian, which you wouldn't expect from most of the stuff you see him in. But he's hilarious in both the Coen Brothers' The Ladykillers (a criminally underrated jewel) and Red Doors, in which he plays a comically suicidal father.

Ma recalled that his wife, Christina, was in a reading of Big Hunk at South Coast Repertory ten years ago. It was officially my first big break, so I will always remember that time and remember Christina, though I have not seen her since then.

The cast and friends hung out at a nearby bar, where Ma drank apple martinis. For all his swagger, you would expect him to be double-fisting Jaegermesiter shots, but, no, it's apple martinis and cosmopolitans, which is fine by me because it gives me an opportunity to chip away at his reputation.

Ma doesn't know that I obsessively blog about 24, on which he plays Cheng, a mysterious official of the Chinese government and undoubtedly one of the show's greatest villains. (If the fanboys on the 24 boards have their way, he will return every season.) Cheng, if you recall, orchestrated Jack Bauer's kidnapping, Bauer's subsequent yearlong torture in China, the faking of Audrey Raines's death, and the interception of a device that contained information and secrets about the entire Russian defense system. In other words, he's bad. And his final line in the season finale is one of the series' most amusing, provocative, and biting, proving that he's bad even after he's caught and in a shitload of trouble and has blood all over his face: "My people won't abandon me the way you did Jack Bauer!"

It's good to be bad. Just ask Noel Alumit.

—Reporting From Glendale, California
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