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Review: Yellowface at KXT

Review By James Ong

There has been a strong push in the Sydney Indy Theatre scene post-lockdown for hearing ethnically diverse voices discussing their place in the modern West, which is a testament to the hunger for important, current and ultimately real stories. KXT’s Yellowface is another strong step in this movement - particularly for Asian stories throughout the West - and in the theatre’s very solid recent track record. Prolific playwright David Henry Hwang's award-winning work features a semi-fictionalised version of himself that attempts to bring his newest Asian-American focused work to the stage. A commanding performance by Shan-Ree Tan as the powerful, yet undoubtedly anxious DHH gives the production an essential tone of sincerity. In DHH's struggles to get the show onstage, he accidentally casts the very white Marcus G Dhalman (Adam Marks) in the lead role. In a genius stroke, Hwang (the real life playwright) has designed a very entertaining force of personality in the titular Yellowfacing character: a character so entertaining in his delusions of being an Asian-American role model that he often outshines the ‘actually’ Asian voices in the room. Mark’s buoyant and engaging performance plays the audience perfectly - channeling true himbo energy for sympathy despite becoming increasingly more tone-deaf as the show progresses. These two core performances are very well tuned and carry with them swathes of direct political nuanced commentary and satire, without ever becoming long in the tooth. The piece has often been described as a memoir of sorts, and in a very clever move from the design team, the production leans heavily into the style of verbatim theatre. Basic stage blocks, neutral costumes, and carefully curated sound design provide a flexible terrain for the full cast to chew the scenery in their full glory. A simple, yet dominant stark red stripe blankets the middle of the space, not just lending shape to the space, but also implying an unexpected sense of menace to everything we see. Indeed the surface level absurdity of the narrative encourages shallow scoffs and chuckles, but simmering below the crust lies the fact that Asians in the West continue to be coloured by centuries worth of stereotyping and systemic neglect. Hwang very clear feels the afterglow of post-WW2 Red Scare lingering in the air of modern day New York. Director Tasnim Hossain has crafted a very authentic piece here. I caught myself at several points twinged with the very a familiar sense of frustration that the necessary voices weren't being heard. Of course this is prevalent in the script, but it could have very easily been misguided or ill-tuned if not for Hossain's will tuned direction. This twinge is the same that many POC feel when their voices are drowned out in the public forum, despite them often being the exact subject of the discourse. Yellowface attempts to rectify that, by not only providing a platform for current voices of Asian communities in the West, but also interrogating those that have attempted to represent us so far. The spark for each play being written (both Yellowface, and the play within the play) is the very real incident of Jonathan Pryce portraying a harmful and regressive Asian character in the apparently beloved musical Miss Saigon... in 1990... yes in full yellowface. Not much more to say on that really - just that it reinforces just how valuable and powerful it is when a community pushes to regain its voice.

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