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Arts & Culture

What Does It Mean To Be Asian?

What Does It Mean To Be Asian?
A play that mixes real events with fiction along with comedy and serious social issues comes to a San Diego stage. David Henry Hwang's play "Yellow Face" looks at complexities of race and is produced by Mo'olelo Performing Arts.

A play that mixes real events with fiction along with comedy and serious social issues comes to a San Diego stage. David Henry Hwang's play "Yellow Face" looks at the complexities of race and is produced by Mo'olelo Performing Arts.


David Henry Hwang is a Tony award winning playwright. His play "Yellow Face" opens today at Mo'olelo Performing Arts.


Seema Sueko directs "Yellow Face." She's the artistic director of Mo'olelo Performing Arts.

Greg Watanabe plays the role of DHH in "Yellow Face"

Brian Bielwaski plays the character of Marcus in "Yellow Face."

"Yellow Face" opens today at Mo'olelo Performing Arts and runs through October 31st. Performances take place at the 10th Avenue Theatre in downtown San Diego.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

White actors playing Asian roles. It used to happen all the time. A play opening in San Diego exploring the many aspects of yellow face. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days. Mo`olelo Performing Arts presents Yellow Face, a comedy about a very serious subject. The play explores and challenges the purpose of race in stage and in life. Plus the weekend preview explores art shows music from movie stars, and a big food and wine extravaganza. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.


I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Since the dares of American slept film, great roles featuring Asian characters come around maybe once a decade. And most of those roles have been plied by white actors. It's something that used to be done almost all the time without a second thought, and you can even find it done today. So in the 1990's when one big role on Broadway was cast with a British actor playing a Vietnamese, it was just too much for a lot of Asian American actors they protested and it's from this protest and subsequent meditations on the role of race in film, theatre, and life, that the play, Yellow Face, was born. Mo`olelo performing arts in San Diego is presenting the comedy, yellow face and it's a pleasure to welcome thigh guests. David Henry Hwang is a Tony award winning play right, he is the author of yellow face, and good morning, David.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Hi Maureen, thanks for having us on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're very welcome. Seema Sueko directs Yellow Face. She is the artistic director of Mo`Olelo Performing Arts. Seema, good morning.

AUDIE BRINKER: Good morning Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Greg Watanabe plays the role of D.H.H in yellow face. Good morning.

GREG WATANABE: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Brian Bielawski plays the character of Marcus. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Thanks Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, David, let me start with you if I may. The title of in play refers to an actual term, yellow face, you tell us what it mean.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, I think most people are familiar with the term black face, which has been largely discontinued these days, where Caucasian actors used to be regularly cast as African American characters. And yellow face is simply the equivalent, Caucasian actors playing Asian characters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you were inspired to write this play by events that took place in 1990 in a Broadway production of Ms. Saigon. Tell us what happened.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, it became known that the Broadway production was going to use Jonathan Price in the why lead Asian role. And a number of other people were involved in a protest which actually grew into a kind of big incendiary culture awards event in that era, I mean, it was, you know, it only lasted a couple of weeks but it was a pretty intense couple of weeks and I think that the degree of passion that was stirred on both sides of the debate just kind of affected me for many years, and Yellow Face was ultimately my reaction to that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David, why did you think anybody thought that that was all right to cast Jonathan Price in that role.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, I think I mean, even today there are probably people who feel that, you know, it's really PC run amok to say that an actor has to be the same race as the character that he plays. And I feel that, you know, it actually is a very complicated and nuanced question and issue. And the problem with the Ms. Saigon debate was that it kind of got reduced so quickly to media smack down about who was gonna win, who was gonna lose, there was really no opportunity to talk about the complexity of the issues.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that's what you try to do in this play.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Seema, what is the plot of yellow face?

SEEMA SUEKO: The plot is, it's the story of a famous Asian American playwright, modeled after David Henry Hwang, who's at the center of these protest about the casting of Jonathan Price in Ms. Saigon, who then accidentally casts a white man as the leading Asian role in his own new play that he writes after the Ms. Saigon controversy, and then the play explores what happens when he tries to hide the blunder he's made, and when the might man he's cast in this role really embraces being considered Asian and embraces the Asian community, and then that story line bumps up a couple of other events, recent events in recent Asian American history. The the campaign finance scandal in mid the 1990s, and the accusation of Wen Ho Lee of espionage in 1999.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David, one of the most interesting parts of your writing of this play is the fact that you are also a character in the play. Why did you decide to do that?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, I've kind of, you know, looking back, I've been having plays done for about 20 or 30 years, and you know, at the beginning of my career, this notion of what we cull multiculturalism was maybe fresh and radical in people's eyes and you know, nowadays it's generally accepted to be part of the culture not with standing certain eruptions about immigration or Islamic community centers. So I kind of wanted to look back at multiculturalism and the growth of it, and also the contradictions and the absurdities that are present in any ism and multiculturalism. So I kind of picked a lot of characters to lampoon, but I figured if I made myself a central character I would only be offending me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you thought you could take it?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Yeah, I dealt with it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Greg, now you play the character of D.H.H. in the play. That is the one that's based on David Henry Hwang. How would you describe your character's central conflict in yellow face?

GREG WATANABE: You know, I would say it has to do with the main question of what is what does it mean? What is authenticity and how how is it that self identification, to what extent to self identification hold true? Because on a literal sense, is it okay to self identify yourself as someone as another race or not? I mean, so I think that I was thinking about this last night and I sort of think that that is kind of at its core. Because the larger question of whether or not mark has defined himself as Asian is only one level, and the rest of it has to do with, well, what does it really mean to be Asian American? What is that question? And how do we define ourselves? And that is the constantly renewing question for the Asian American community and for myself, so I see that a lot in the play.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And also in the play, not only is there this conflict but this is a conflict for the audience knowing that there are really people and events depicted in the may, but it's still a fiction. So David, how do you shift between fact and fiction in the may.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, I'm hoping that part of the fun of the play is not exactly knowing what's real and what's not. It's a mockumentary in some sense. But you know, I probably was watching too much Curb Your Enthusiasm at the time that I thought of this idea. And so the theme of authenticity runs through the play in so many different forms, therefore, I mean, it's a question of, okay, who gets to be Asian, what does it mean to be authentically Asian, then also in the terms of the media, and terms of issues like memoirs, what's really, what's not real. And then the play itself, what's real what's not real.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Seema, this play is a comedy and it deals with some very serious issues about race, so you as the corrector, how do you get your actors to achieve the right tonal shifts in this?

SEEMA SUEKO: Great question. And I think there are two major things, the first is trusting the ticket that David Henry Hwang has written a great play and I feel my job is to really try to get into the rhythm of the language that he's written. And then the second thing to the success of that is just hiring great actors. And I've been blessed with this cast, Greg Watanabe is a comic genius, Brian Bielawski captures the earnest, innocence, and exuberance of the character of Marcus. Then there are four other actors, Albert Park, Jacob Bruce, Maggie Carney, and Michelle Hwang. And each of them play a multitude of roles, ages, ethnicities, and they do actor gymnastics. And I feel very blessed for that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Brian, we haven't heard from you yet. And you may the character Marcus. We heard it referred to because you are the character who is sort of embracing an Asian identity that is not a reality for you. And I wonder if you could describe your character a little bit for us.

BRIAN WATANABE: Sure, yeah. You know, for me, Marcus seems to be the purest. Marcus very much takes people at their word he doesn't, you know, hear sarcasm, and he doesn't hear kind of loaded cultural stuff when David tells him it doesn't matter what somebody looks like on the outside he takes that literally. And so I look white on the outside but I want to I want to, know, I want to be Asian. So there's an innocence about him that is really exciting for me to play. And there was one more thing I wanted to say about Marcus. Oh, I lost it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You can tell me later.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Great. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wanted because I wanted to go back to Seema. You gave such a nice set up for this. Give us an example if you would, of a scene in the play, that sort of really pokes at the meaning of race, the kind of thing that Brian was telling us about.

SEEMA SUEKO: Sure, actually the scene that the actors have prepared to read on air is one scene that does that in a very comical way so maybe I'll let that scene peek for itself. But as I was think been this question, I thought I'd bring up another scene.


SEEMA SUEKO: That occurs later in the player, when the character D. H. H. Meets with a New York Times reporter. And as part of their transaction, the reporter says, asks D. H. H. Does your father see himself as more Chinese or more American? And D. H. H. Says that question makes no sense. And he says, what about you? Do you see yourself as more white or more American? And the reporter says, well, that question is irrelevant. There's no conflict between being white and being American of thus revealing that he sees it as being a conflict between being Chinese and being American. And I feel like when people ask the question of, well, yellow face or black face, it's all just in fun, why do people get all worked up about it? That scene hits home because it's when these stereotypes became engrained in in the way people see the other. And as a result write articles or make accusations against the other, I think that scene really kind of captures more of the dark side of yellow phrase.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, you've give us an idea now, of the dark side of yellow face. Let's hear a scene that is the comedy essence of yellow face, Brian and Greg, you're gonna do a scene for us and Seema maybe you would set that up.

SEEMA SUEKO: Sure, this is a scene that's early in act two, and, Marcus played by Brian Bielawski, and David are both at the Asian American Artists' association, winning awards, and this is a scene that happens backstage between them.


GREG WATANABE: Don't give me that "hey, bro," stuff.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Sorry. I didn't mean to offend.

GREG WATANABE: Well, you know, I mean, this whole thing you're doing, it's really offensive:

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: All about what happened in Boston?

GREG WATANABE: Of course it's about what happened in Boston!

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Dave, for me, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise!

GREG WATANABE: You're really gonna act like you don't know?

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: I wish I could say that I was acting, but I'm not that good an actor. At least you didn't think so.

GREG WATANABE: You're running around pretending to be Asian. You're lying to everyone there. Can you follow that?

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: I'm trying really hard not to lie. Okay! Now, and then I have to mention the Siberian thing, and that's unfortunate but I'm trying as much as possible. I'm doing my best to speak only the truth.

GREG WATANABE: Your whole life is a lie! You're letting people believe

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: And you said yourself, didn't you? It doesn't matter what someone looks like on the outside.

GREG WATANABE: I didn't mean that literally.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Well, how did you mean it? David, do you have a problem with anything I'm saying.

GREG WATANABE: No, it's not what you're saying.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: It's not what you're saying, it's that I'm the one who's saying it? Doesn't that make your position kind of racist.

GREG WATANABE: This is not that hard. In order to be Asian you have to have at least some Asian blood.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: I'm just saying some things that need to be said, doing things that need to be done. I mean, someone hey gotta step up.

GREG WATANABE: What's that supposed to mean?

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: To be perfectly honest I've been attending a lot of community functions lately and I don't see you at any of them.

GREG WATANABE: You can't be

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: John Hwang has founded this great new organization, the Asian Leadership Council.

GREG WATANABE: You're lecturing me on how to be Asian?

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: It's a chance for AP As to gain some real clout by leveraging our

GREG WATANABE: I can't believe this!

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: They're honoring me next week in DC. We could really use your support.

GREG WATANABE: I was an Asian American role model back when you were still Caucasian!

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Dave, come on. Is this a popularity contest?

GREG WATANABE: No, I'm not in a popularity contest with you.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: This is about collective empowerment! Agreed?

GREG WATANABE: That's so easy for you to say!


GREG WATANABE: You come in here with that that face of yours, call yourself Asian, everyone falls at your feet. But you don't have to live as an Asian, every day of your well, no, you can just skim the cream. You ethnic tourist!

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: You're right, I don't have to live as an Asian every day of my life. I'm choosing to do so.

GREG WATANABE: Funny thing about race. You don't get to choose. If you'd been born a minority you'd know that.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: David, are you familiar with the Chinese concept of face?

GREG WATANABE: Why am I of course it's the you know.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Basically it says the face we choose to show the world reveals who we really are.

GREG WATANABE: I knew that.

BRIAN BIELAWSKI: Well, I've chosen my face! And now I'm becoming the person I've always wanted to be.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Greg Watanabe, and Brian Bielawski. Thank you so much that was that was a scene from yellow face, and it's being performed by the Mo'olelo performing arts company in San Diego. My guests are David Henry Hwang and Seema Sueko along with Greg and Brian. David, first of all, that was fabulous.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: They did a great job. I can't wait to do the show.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I want to know in this explanation you're doing about trying to understand race, that line that Greg says, you know, you in the play, I didn't expect you to take that literally. What does it mean not to not to judge people and to accept everyone on on the value of the inside? Are we anywhere near that as a society?

DAVID HENRY HWANG: I mean, it depends on if you look at the glass half full or half empty we're certainly nearer than we were when I was a kid but we still have a language way to go. And I think one of the things plate tries to do is kind of hold in its mind two somewhat contradictory positions most of us would agree that's a good thing to go for. And at the same time to recognize that racist things still happen and when they do, they need to be faced and dealt with and fought. So you know, there are two things that are a bit in contradiction to be able to embrace them both, and I think the play attempts to do that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David, the experiences your father had play a large role in this play. Talk to us about that.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, I in the late 1990s, I feel like there was kind of a wave of anti Chinese hysteria. I feel like the country was getting ready to go, okay, China's gonna be our next big enemy, then 911 happened and the country went oh, wait, no, and we're sort of over there. But then as part of that, in the late 90s my father was he was a banker based approximate LA, and he was accused in a front page article in the New York Times of laundering money for communist China. And I feel like the stereotypes of Asians have changed a lot over my lifetime from being kind of poor and uneducated to being too wealthy and over educated but one of the things that has not changed is this idea of Asians as perpetual foreigners and I feel like our loyalty is constantly called into question. And this was a very concrete example from my own life and the life of my family.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet, David, in this play, you explore the idea of ethnicity as being as being perhaps not as important as other things in in a person or even in a theatrical production. Tell us a little bit about that.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: Well, you know, I think that in the final analysis, race is kind of meaningless. Race is are these kind of deals that are in our are featured in our genome that really don't say much about us. What is kind of significant is culture, that is, being raised in a culture is like being raised in a particular family. You're raised with certain pred elections you can choose to accept or reject but those are part of who how you grew up. The thing is that race does not equal culture so for instance, you have Asian Americans that were born and raised in the American south. So they're culturally somewhat but you can't really tell by looking at them. And this happens more and more as the world becomes smaller, with the crossing of borders, so therefore, race kind of ultimately needs to be separated from the notion of culture because race doesn't really tell us anything about culture.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet, Greg, you were expressing a little while ago the idea in the Asian community that somehow, somehow what happens in the Asian community, it just never translates fully into mainstream America.

GREG WATANABE: Yeah, well, I think that that's true. In some ways the some of the themes that get talked about in this play about face and constructing sort of a your world view or identifying what your world view is, one of them is a self identification of being Asian American and part of that is you are Asian by race and so that makes you Asian American no matter whether you were born in America or if you're an American citizen, whether or not you want to be or not. So culturally Asian American is even though it's a political construct to say this is what As yen Americans are, it's a huge, broad spectrum of different people and experiences and points of view. Perhaps because of that I think that any issues that Asian Americans have are largely ignored by mainstream culture. . There is not really any prime example of an issue that Asian Americans brought up that way sort of central except for some examples, say, like Japanese American internment. Which you could say wasn't really an Asian American issue because it that term didn't exist at the time. But that experience is really the quintessential in terms of what it's like to be the Other. And that is important in that you have to protect everyone's rights and your identifying as an Asian American as an impact because people are going to see certain things and you have to be cognizant of that. And it allows to create support for people who have things stripped from them or who need help in whatever way it is, because they can't get certain resources ear certain community support. So it has a lot of use us, and yet, it's also largely seen as, I think superfluous, that's my negative reaction.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, also, Seema, it could very well be what Greg is saying, the idea that these things don't translate, Asian American issues don't translate as readily perhaps as some other minority issues to mainstream America. Is the very fact that the term yellow face is not widely known.

SEEMA SUEKO: Yeah, we did a little video contest and we got about 47 different video responses and it's all across the board in what they think yellow face is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I don't want to leave our discussion without talking to you Seema about your dedication of this production to a San Diegan named Alice Setang. Tell us who she is, and why you dedicated the play to her.

SEEMA SUEKO: Certainly, Alice Was an amazing woman, she relocated to Taiwan she raised her baby brother, graduated top of her class in the national Taiwan university then she went on to receive her master's degree at MIT, and completed her P. H. D in oceanography at the Scripps institute here. She was a professor at SDSU, then when she resigned from there.


SEEMA SUEKO: That she invented. Yeah. So she was an amazing woman, I met her in late 2007 when she called me out of the blew and said she had stumbled across Mo'omoleo's website and was curious about our company. And she said, well, I think I'd like to donate $5,000 to you. She had never scene a show we did. We had never met face to face yet. That was just a phone call. So it was pretty remarkable. I was just are she passed away this past April of pancreatic cancer and left a big hole in the lives of many people. And I was saddened because I think she would have really liked this play, yellow face, she was very dedicated to issues of global peace, issues of identity, and I think this show is right up her alley. So we're pleased to dedicate it to her.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank everyone here. Henry sorry, David Henry Hwang, thank you so much for speaking with us.



SEEMA SUEKO: Thank you.