The least interesting issue in M. Butterfly is ‘How do they have sex?’ And certainly the least interesting issue in this play is ‘How do I feel about Miss Saigon?’ I don’t really care about Miss Saigon. I think there are bigger issues at stake.” David Henry Hwang is trying to push discussion of his new play, Face Value, away from controversies past toward controversies to come.
Lounging on a sofa in his Boston hotel room on a bitterly cold day-after-opening-night, Hwang’s rapid-fire delivery is framed by philosophical questions and interspersed with giggles. That’s much the effect that Hwang is aiming for with Face Value, a farce about race being directed by Jerry Zaks. And though the play stumbled during its tryout in Boston (Boston Globe critic Kevin Kelly described it as having “too much stir-fry in the farce”), Hwang is no stranger to tryout troubles: his last Broadway play also received numerous pans during its pre-New York run.
Once on Broadway, of course, M. Butterfly had more than a little success. What’s worrying Hwang right now, though, about Face Value’s reception is that audiences with get sidetracked–and in a curious repetition of the Miss Saigon controversy, they’ll think about Broadway when they could be thinking about race.
When you consider the conceit of Face Value, such concerns are understandable. Two Asians–one a struggling actress–sneak into the opening of a horrid musical called The Real Manchu. The eponymous star is played by a white actor, Bernard Sugarmann (Mark Linn Baker), who dons sci-fi Oriented-gear, yellowface, and an assortment of “Asian” mannerisms to realize his character. The activists plan to disrupt the show by standing at a strategic moment and yelling, “We are not gooks! We are human beings!”
The parallels to Miss Saigon are obvious; Hwang, of course, was highly visible in the fracas surrounding the musical, and he still speaks passionately about it. But what concerns him now is the way the casting controversy–the brouhaha over the casting of Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer–obscured the other issues raised at the time of protesters. Namely, the stereotyped images of Asians on stage and in society: “I find the stereotyping to be an even more cogent and important issue than the casting. One of the things that always bothered me–I understand it, but I can’t reconcile the contradiction intellectually–is the idea of people conceding that this is a racist show, but if I got a job in it I’d do it.”
So Hwang wants Face Value’s audience to forget about Miss Saigon, the casting controversy, and recall Miss Saigon, the racist musical. For Hwang, The Real Manchu makes explicit what was implicit in Miss Saigon. “The Jonathan Pryce character, the Engineer, is such an evil guy, and he’s so anxious to come to the West. It’s as if, at the end of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye’s going to go to America, and we’re all saying, ‘Oh my god! That awful guy is coming here.’ He just embodies this whole”–and here Hwang breaks into a song from The Real Manchu–“‘He’s inscrutable, he’s greedy and brown,/He’s inscrutable, and he’s bound for your town.’ That’s dead-on Engineer stuff, I think.”
Some will disagree with Hwang’s take on Miss Saigon. To underline the apparently less-than-obvious racism in that musical, he’s translated the Engineer into a caricature–Fu Manchu–so stereotypical that only an extraordinary bigot could fail to recognize its racist character. And therein lies one of the issues with which Face Value grapples: Can one fight stereotypes by employing them?
“I think,” says Hwang, “that the combination of having Mark Linn-Baker onstage dressed as an Asian doing this horrible accent, alongside actual Asians onstage talking like actual Asians, creates a contradiction which is constructive. But I don’t know.” Does an extended riff on the idea that Asians can’t distinguish between r’s and l’s extend stereotypes, or explode them?
To stack the deck, Hwang has added a subplot to Face Value involving a white supremacist and his sidekick. Unbeknownst to the Asian activists, the white supremacists have also planned to disrupt the opening of The Real Manchu. Their complaint? The musical is propaganda for an insidious yellow invasion. For the supremacists, Sugarmann’s outrageous caricature is a match for their image of an Asian. When they, and not the Asian activists, succeed in disrupting the musical by kidnapping Sugarmann, Face Value spins away from its critique of Miss Saigon and becomes a farce on the theme of mistaken identities. The lead supremacist (Jeff Weiss), a shaggy-dog creature who claims he was fired from his university for arguing that Martin Luther King gained acclaim because of his race, refuses to see that, beneath his yellowface, Sugarmann is white. And one of the Asian activists (Mia Korn), still wearing whiteface and also kidnapped by the supremacists during the bedlam following the disruption of the musical, can’t convince her captors that she’s Asian. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.
Tear away the mask
In leaving Miss Saigon behind, Face Value moves into heretofore uncharted territory for Hwang: the notion that race, perhaps, does not exist. Throughout the play, characters misperceive one another because of their racial masks. Tear away the mask, and as one character suggests, “I gotta face facts. Race just doesn’t exist in this world. Sure, we can all agree on the same crazy fantasy. But is that real? Once I stopped believing in childish things, that’s when I found–I do have a family after all. And now I can go to the Pyramids or the Great Wall or the Leaning Tower of Pisa–and feel damn proud of my heritage.” The ending of the play, in which three interracial couples stand on stage in their skivvies embracing, suggests that our notions of race are illusions–superficial face values. Once these illusions are discarded, we’re free to draw on our…human heritage.
Pure Broadway schmaltz? Hwang prefers to see the ending as a version of what Maxine Hong Kingston called a “myth of peace”: “The ending of this play is kind of utopian and mythological and fairy-tale like, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing right now.” Right now translates as the age of nationalism, domestic and international, and Hwang is fully aware of the implications of his new line of questioning. “I guess I’ve always just tended to contradict whatever the conventional wisdom is. In the ’80s I think my work was somewhat more nationalistic; at least this piece is not. The thing is, I really feel that nationalism is important and necessary, but I also think that you can’t stay there.” Face Value throws down the gauntlet to multiculturalism, suggesting that in our justified eagerness to overthrow racism, we’ve become prisoners of race. The play presents a “negative” version of race, Hwang admits, sidestepping, at least for now, the notion that our racial heritages, complex as they may be, are sources of strength as well as discord.
At all costs avoid honesty
But even in Face Value the intractability if not the desirability of our need to cast ourselves in our racial images remains. In a moment (the beginning of Act 2) that even the characters refer to as “Pirandellian,” race disrupts the play as actors break character to “question” the stereotyped roles they’ve been assigned. That moment–played in the vocabulary of the moment, with references to “PC,” reverse racism and histories of oppression ends with one character exclaiming, “If you’re looking for understanding between the races, at all costs avoid honesty!”, and others sheepishly returning to the farce at hand. Hwang calls the scene “sort of the way things really tend to work out. And the play is a dreamy fantasy of how they could work out.”
Can Hwang’s “dreamy fantasy” work? First it has to get people laughing. Early returns suggest that it does so only in fits and starts. That might be, as the Globe critic offered, because “Hwang just isn’t very funny.” Or it might be because “everybody’s really pissed off,” as Hwang says, when it comes to the issue of race. Have we expended too much energy establishing our identities to follow Hwang’s suggestion that we “get beyond ourselves a little”? For all his effort, early reviews of Face Value focused on Miss Saigon’s casting controversy, eliding the racism of the musical. That suggests that we have a ways to go in recognizing the dignity of our racial selves, before we undertake the task of dismantling them.