Entertainment » Theatre

Cliff Odle on O.W.I's Timely Production of 'Yellowface'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 1, 2016

Boston theater enthusiasts know that Cliff Odle just about does it all. In addition to his role as an educator (he's taught at UMass Boston, Emerson College, and Wheelock College), Odle is the author of a number of produced plays and is also an actor who keeps busy on Boston stages, having appeared in productions with SpeakEasy, Company One, Huntington Theatre, and other companies. (You might have seen him recently in Sleeping Weazel's triple bill of three new plays, "The Birds and the Bees," in which Odle appeared opposite Karen Mac Donald.) Odle is also a founding member of the New Urban Theatre Lab (or NUTlab).

Odle's current project is helming this summer's production from The Office of War Information, David Henry Hwang's "Yellowface."

First produced in 2007, "Yellowface" combines elements from Hwang's own experiences with invented elements to create a satirical story around a theater producer -- named Hwang -- who ends up casting a white actor for the part of an Asian character and ten becomes entangled in a comic web as things spiral out of control. The issue of casting a Caucasian to portray an Asian individual gives the play its title, but it also refers to historic events: A quarter of a century ago Hwang was involved in a controversy surrounding the casting of a Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce, in the role of Asian character The Engineer in the Broadway run of "Miss Saigon." (Yes, that Jonathan Pryce, the guy whose character on "Game of Thrones" completed a sizzling story arc in the recent season finale.) The controversy nearly led to the play's Broadway run being axed, and in the end Pryce won a Tony for his performance.

The issue of Caucasian actors playing ethnic roles has been a long-standing and contentious one. (Did audiences actually laugh at Mickey Rooney playing Holly Golightly's neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's?" How times have changed: We cringe at it now.) A production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "An Octoroon" this past winter -- a collaboration between CompanyOne and Arts Emerson -- turned the lamentable convention on its head by revisiting the 1859 play by Dion Boucicault and adding a preface in which a contemporary African-American playwright (played by Brandon Green) mused on the issue while applying white makeup. It was arguably the best part of the show.

That production took place in the midst of the "Oscars So White" fracas. These events were still fresh in EDGE's mind when EDGE caught up with Odle to talk about "Yellowface." As Odle points out below, the sorry practice is still very much with us. Odle references Benedict Cumberbatch's casting in the big-screen adaptation of role of Marvel Comics' superhero sorcerer "Dr. Strange," due in theaters next November, but considering Dr. Strange isn't necessarily non-Caucasian in the source material (it's been noted online that when the character was first introduced he was identified as a surgeon from heartland America and he's more or less typically considered to be Caucasian), another Cumberbatch role comes readily to mind: That of Khan Singh in the last "Star Trek" movie, when the British actor took over a role made famous by Ricardo Montalban. (For that matter, Montalban playing a Punjabi is in itself a little odd to modern sensibilities, but they don't seem to have worried about that sort of thing overmuch in the '60s -- see the aforementioned example from "Breakfast at Tiffany's.")

Genetic supermen and mysterious mystics notwithstanding, the problem of "whitewashing" theater and film has been persistent. How best to talk about such racial issues? As a rule, the most constructive avenue is through laughter -- and over and above its social commentary, that's what "Yellowface" is: A comedy.

EDGE: How did you become involved with OWI's production of "Yellowface?"

Cliff Odle: The artistic director, Peter Riesenberg, is actually my former student at the UMass Boston. He's taken a couple theater classes with me. It's a play we talked about once or twice before he decided to do it. I figured I'd help out a fringe company as well as direct a really good play.

EDGE: Given the recent controversy around how Hollywood productions are chosen and produced -- and cast -- it seems like a timely production for this play, which premiered in 2007.

Cliff Odle: It's hard to ignore that. I think, yeah; the issues have always been there. The recent flap has just made it more timely -- so, yeah, that was definitely a factor in putting it on. The truth of the matter is, it's a longtime issue -- going back for years in Hollywood and even on stage, of Caucasian actors putting on a face, be it yellowface or even blackface, and performing their interpretation of who other people are. You'd think at this point we'd be beyond that; you'd think we would be moving toward being more inclusive, or at least more truthful to the roles. But obviously as you see from productions like the upcoming production of "Dr. Strange" [starring Benedict Cumberbatch], that has not quite happened.

EDGE: Issues of race have always been a source of artistic creation and social commentary, and recent theater seasons in Boston have brought us a new production of "A Raisin on the Sun," as well as other works that feel important, like "An Octoroon," "In the Heights," August Wilson's "How I Learned What I Learned," a stage version of "Far from Heaven" -- those are just a few. Are the issues addressed by these plays now being taken more seriously in general? Is so, why do you think that is?

Cliff Odle: I think Boston is fortunate in that it has theater companies that are ahead of the curve on talking about issues of race and inclusion. Company One's productions are always pushing that edge and making sure that more people are included. Wheelock Theater has been doing a lot of work dealing with issues in the deaf community, and having actual deaf actors on stage. Part of it, I think, is a need to stand out, because we're stuck in that New York sort of orbit. I think that people have really found that in the resources of people that they have right here. The problem that often happens, especially with young actors of color, is you get to a certain point where there's just no work for you here. You have to leave for New York or L.A. I think there are companies that are seeing that issue and are starting to address that.

But I think theater has been able to be a lot more nimble and been allowed to address that issue a lot more than TV or film.

EDGE: As a director, how do you approach the issues raised by this play as you work together with your cast?

Cliff Odle: Myself being a theater artist of color, I had a level of understanding going into it. I'm not Asian American, but being African American, if anyone understands issues of having your ethnicity represented by someone else, having your ethnicity defined by somebody else, having other people take on aspects of your ethnicity and claim it as your own, if you're African American you know that and you've probably been dealing that longer than almost any other ethnic group in the country. There is an understanding just to begin with.

And we started out, when we were having a reading of the play, having everyone talk about their individual experiences, and where they're coming from and having them bring some of that into the play -- that energy and their understanding, bringing that into the play itself. And this particular play... I cast it in a way that every actor is of some kind of Asian background. I intentionally did that. Normally, the cast has at least one or two actors who are Caucasian or white, portraying various characters. I'm like, "Why not have Asian actors portraying some of these Caucasian characters?" I decided to go -- as we jokingly call the cast -- "full Asian."

But also, that challenged the idea of what it is to be Asian. We have actors who are of Filipino background; actors who are of Indian background; actors who are of Chinese or Japanese background. We have folks who are from different types of backgrounds, but still under that umbrella of "Asian."

EDGE: That's quite a twist, given that the play deals with a Caucasian actor passing himself off as an Asian actor and then carrying that over into his personal life as well. That's a bold statement.

Cliff Odle: Yeah, it is. It is, and I'm hoping the audience will, if anything, take away [the realization] when we use blanket terms like "Asian" or even "Black," and so on, there is a lot more behind that, that we tend to overlook. I hope that it gives people pause when they discuss these issues. What are they really saying? What does "Asian" really mean? -- As well as challenging preconceived stereotypes, and things like that.

EDGE: You're not only an actor, you are a playwright yourself. What are your insights into "Yellowface," from a writing perspective?

Cliff Odle: To a certain degree, all playwriting is narcissistic, in a sense. Playwrights are writing from their perspective. You write yourself in a play whether you mean to or not. It takes it a step further when [a version] of the author is also the main character of the play, as is the case here. Now, it's not fully autobiographical -- there are parts that are made up. But it's semi-autobiographical. He does bring in some actual [elements from his own life]. It is universal, but also very intimate. That's an interesting thing that David Henry Hwang pulls off with this. It's a story about race, but it's also a story about family, it's also a story about friends and what it means to be part of a community and what it means to be cast out of a community. As a playwright, I'm impressed by what he's been able to do with this. It's a very talky play, and there's not a lot of big action, but it is the kind of dialogue that does pull you forward and takes you along. Hwang pulls off a trick with this: It's all about him, but yet he makes it seem like it's not all about him.

EDGE: Does the fact that 'Yellowface" is a comedy make it harder to direct, versus if David Henry Hwang as written it as a drama?

Cliff Odle: No. When comedies are well written, they're really like windup toys. You kind of just set them [in motion]. And this a well-written comedy. If anything, the toughest part is getting everyone to stop laughing.

EDGE: In addition to having appeared on stage with Company One, SpeakEasy, New Rep, and other theater companies around Boston...

Cliff Odle: Yeah, I get around.

EDGE: You are also a founding member of The New Urban Theatre Laboratory. What is that group up to right now? Is it still active?

Cliff Odle: The New Urban Theatre League is on hiatus right now. Myself and the assistant director, Jackie Davis, who is a wonderful director in her own right, found ourselves being drawn to other projects. Since we were the two kind of keeping it going, we put it on hiatus for a while. Jackie brought it back for a bit because she did direct a piece for the Boston Playwrights' Theater marathon. Hopefully we'll come back together in the future. It is asleep, but not dead.

EDGE: What new projects -- on stage, as a playwright, as a director -- do have lined up for the future?

Cliff Odle: This summer I'm focused on writing. I have two plays that I've been working on. One that I hope will get picked up by a theater company soon -- I can't say who yet, but there is a theater company that has shown a lot of interest. That one deals with jazz in the late 1950s in New York. It also features a lot of other elements. There was a group that was active at the time called the Nation of Islam, they make an appearance. A lot of the things that were happening in New York during that period.

And the other play I'm working on is a much more historical play that takes place in colonial Western Massachusetts. It's about a person by the name of Lucy Terry, who was a slave who was able to gain her freedom. I kind of mix that story with another story from the same time about a woman who was kidnapped by Native Americans and is brought back after being away form a long time and actually adopting he way of he American Indians. It's called "The Deerfield Homecoming." It looks at the the role of women in colonial America, and takes a look at two women in two different kinds of bondage -- one who is in bondage, a black slave -- and one about a white woman who is in a different type of bondage. It compares and contrasts those two, and finding that restraint is a common issue.

"Yellowface" runs July 15 - 31 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://officeofwarinformation.com/current-production

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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