Bringing “Yellow Face” Across the Pond
When Kevin Shen first moved to London over four years ago, he felt like he was transported to an America from the 1990s. Shen grew up in Orange County and lived in New York City – both places where the Asian and Pacific Islander population is well-represented. He was therefore a little surprised by the microaggressions that he encountered in London, despite it being a big cosmopolitan city in the UK.
“There were a lot of the “ni-hao-ma”s and “where are you from”s,” he said. “Once, I went to a store to get my glasses prescription and they were surprised my name was Kevin.”
Shen remembered a moment when he walked by one of the major theaters in London and there was a promotional poster featuring a white woman painted to look like a Japanese schoolgirl. When he approached the box office to confront them, he was met with confusion. The company had no idea why the poster was problematic.
With a charismatic knack for persuasion and entrepreneurship, Shen started a production company, Special Relationship Productions, with Lucy Fenton, a British woman. Their company name reflects the phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the nature of the Anglo-American alliance. They decided to bring in productions together to provide more opportunities for themselves as actors.
Shen said. “We want to bring work over from the United States or vice versa.
The goal is to promote new or undiscovered writing, as well as blind casting from a race and gender perspective.”
He started working with directors in the production capacity hoping it would boost his acting career. Now, Shen is bringing David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face to London’s Park Theater from May 21-June 16, 2013.
Overcoming Production Obstacles
While David Henry Hwang is well known in the US, he is not as prominent in the UK. His most famous play, M. Butterfly, was in the country over twenty years ago.
“Your more established theater people have heard of him, but the younger people haven’t. Just finding a venue was very difficult,” said Shen. He purchased the rights to Yellow Face during the fall of 2011, and it took him over a year to secure the space and funds to debut the play in London.
It was crucial for him to find a respectable, high quality profile theater for the production since this play would be a reintroduction of Henry Hwang to London. Shen carefully targeted certain houses, those he thought could embrace the play and its content.
“[Park Theater]’s mission was to incorporate racial themes and diversity outreach in their shows, so this play was completely aligned with what they’re trying to do.”
Another challenge is that the play is very American. “International plays have been easier to stage outside the US than Asian American plays. M. Butterly has gone all around the world and so has Chinglish,” said David Henry Hwang. “Something like Yellow Face is a challenge, because the content is American-based.”
Thankfully, while there was concern over how ‘American’ humor would appeal to British audiences, the play’s premise makes it perfect for the painful awkwardness and subtle humor that’s popular in British entertainment.
The British East Asian Voice
Shen hopes that the play will bring more visibility to the British East Asian community.
“It shows the versatility of actors that have been stereotyped. It is exposure for East Asian writing, content, and actors in the industry, and we’re showing the commercial viability of David Henry Hwang and Asian-based work.”
Shen plans to target the British East Asian community for fundraising. His goal is for audiences to show venues and commercial producers that content like Yellow Face is relevant and has value.
“The East Asian community here is just finding a voice,” he said. From the resolve in his voice, it was clear that he, along with his production company, plan to be fully involved in that process.