By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly
Consider the 1961 classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” where Mickey Rooney, a white actor, portrays Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yanioshi. This depiction is a prime example of “yellowface,” or the caricaturing of Asians — much like blackface was to Blacks.
These types of caricatures are fodder for the Pork Filled Players, which over the last several years has become a local comedy institution. It is both the longest running sketch group and longest running Asian American theater group in Seattle, and more broadly, the Pacific Northwest, said Roger Tang, the group’s artistic director and founding member.
The Pork Filled Players, which describes its mission as a “never-ending battle to tickle the funny bone of audiences of every race, creed, and gender across the Northwest,” will present David Henry Hwang’s play “Yellow Face,” which opens this Friday, Aug. 5. The play is produced with the help of Repertory Actors Theatre (ReAct), with sponsorship from the Furuta Lee Foundation.
While the Players’ main focus has been sketch comedy, “we branched out a couple years ago and started doing the occasional full-length play,” said Tang.
Tang, also a college friend of playwright Hwang, produced his first play “F.O.B.,” while both were students at Stanford University. Hwang is best known for his 1988 Tony Award-winning play, “M. Butterfly,” a take on the Puccini opera “Madame Butterfly.” “M. Butterfly” is about historical events and mistaken identities. Similarly, “Yellow Face” is also a take on mistaken identities and revolves around the story of casting a white man to portray the playwright himself.
The historic backdrop consists of events surrounding the 1991 Broadway opening of another Tony Award-winning musical “Miss Saigon,” also a take on “Madame Butterfly.” British stage actor Jonathan Pryce was denied permission by the Actor’s Equity Association to recreate the role of the Engineer, whom he portrayed in London.
The reason? The Engineer is of mixed French-Vietnamese ancestry, and Pryce, who is not of Asian ancestry, reportedly wore eye prosthetics for the role in London. Hwang, along with Actor’s Equity, helped lead the efforts against Pryce playing the role.
Directed by ReAct’s artistic director, David Hsieh, and co-produced by Tang, also a board member of ReAct, “Yellow Face” brings together many of the Northwest’s leading multi-ethnic talents, many of whom are regulars with the Pork Filled Players.
When he helped form the Players in 1997, Tang said, “There wasn’t anything out there where Asian American performers could get their feet wet and start learning the nuts and bolts of theater production.”
“It’s a ball,” said Agastya Kohli, also a board member at ReAct, regarding his work with Pork Filled Players. “We get to put light on issues that most people shy away from. Most people are not comfortable to speak about race.” Kohli will also perform as part of the ensemble cast in “Yellow Face.”
Kohli isn’t a trained theater professional, and technically, Tang isn’t either. Kohli is a computer engineer by trade, whereas Tang holds degrees in journalism and communications. The Players are a “mish mash of all sorts of people as far as the sketch part,” says Kohli.
“To be specific,” says Tang, “Pork Filled Players is a sketch comedy group, not an improv group. We work off written scripts, which we don’t change at performances. That trades a bit of spontaneity for more precision in the comedy.”
Pork Filled Players have toured up and down the Northwest and participated in the Seattle SketchFest, performed at Bumbershoot, and competed at Vancouver Asian Canadian Theater’s SketchOff, a competition for Asian comedy groups. They usually do one main sketch show and one main stage act every year.
“I like to think the Players are a lot like the play,” says Tang. “Hard to categorize, hard to fit in a box — but we’re funny and entertaining. I think audiences can get a lot out of ‘Yellow Face.’ It has a lot to offer.”
“Yellow Face” runs through Sept. 3, at the Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle. Hwang will be in attendance at the Aug. 13 performance for a post-play discussion. ReAct will also host a fundraising dinner in honor of Hwang on Aug. 14. ♦
Irfan Shariff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.