Christian Inouye and David Furumoto in Madison Theatre Guild's Yankee Dawg You Die
In one of the first scenes of Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die, a young Asian American actor who is new to the Hollywood scene encounters one of his screen idols at a party. They discuss a rumor that the elder has had plastic surgery, perhaps to look more American. When he denies it, the seasoned film actor explains that rumors are just part of the culture in the movie business. Why? Because people "like the lie."
This line is echoed effectively in themes throughout the play (through Oct. 11 at the Bartell Theatre), which opens the 2014-2015 season for the Madison Theatre Guild. Along the way, the two actors struggle with their complicity in perpetuating damaging racial stereotypes.
Vincent Chang (David Furumoto) is a Japanese American actor who learned his craft by singing, dancing and doing broad comedy on the "chop suey circuit." To hide from anti-Japanese sentiment after World War II, he changed his name to something vaguely Asian and had steady work in movies doing ridiculous caricatures with thick accents. He consoles himself by insisting that he brings artistry to the roles and that perhaps he can change the system from within.
Chang is challenged throughout the play by Bradley Yamashita (Christian Inouye), a temperamental and gorgeous young Asian American actor who has just arrived from New York. With one independent film under his belt, he has come to Hollywood with an agent, expecting to become a star playing characters that are complex, balanced and free from the simple stereotypes that he grew up with, watching war movies and Godzilla.
Predictably, the two men clash. Chang's pragmatism insults Yamashita's idealism. Chang insists that he had no choice but to take the roles that were available while Yamashita is adamant that they refuse parts that are demeaning and racist. Both are right, and both question their roles in changing the attitudes of the dominant culture.
With a strident dismissal of the status quo, Christian Inouye does a nice job playing Yamashita. His soft, measured delivery of a story about a violent encounter as a teen was affecting.
As Chang, David Furumoto is a joy to watch. He infuses the character with integrity, wisdom and patience as he recounts his early performances, schools the younger actor in the classics, and tries to help Yamashita navigate a business where the odds of success are clearly against him. Furumoto's portrayal of the buffoonish Japanese soldier at the top of the play is so good and so offensive that it's stunning. Perhaps because his character is at an age where he can more easily appreciate the nuances of complicated personal and professional decisions, his subtlety is mesmerizing on stage. In fact, it's hard to take your eyes off him.
The play's short, sometimes abrupt scenes keep the story from feeling too formulaic, although the symmetry of the two characters' journeys seems forced, as does a silly vignette that puts one actor in a Godzilla costume. And while the discussion of racial stereotypes in the media is an important one, Yankee Dawg You Die does not ultimately advance the conversation as much as it reiterates parts of the argument.
Still, Madison Theatre Guild should be applauded for choosing this play to begin their season, and for confronting audiences with questions about the lies they like.