Writers: David Henry Hwang
When celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang visits Kleinhans this month as the second speaker in the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s 2014 Babel series (editor's note: this show was canceled due to poor weather conditions), he’ll be speaking about the fluidity of identity, and the ways in which the racial and ethnic categories we’ve used for so long have become more ambiguous and harder to define. These issues are the core of Hwang’s canon of original plays—which have won and/or been nominated for multiple Obies, Pulitzers, Tonys, and more—and both his understanding and representation of them has evolved over the course of a remarkable thirty-five year career.
“When I was starting out in the seventies and eighties, conversations about race were going on and there was a lot of anger in the air. Then it kind of subsided for a while during the second half of the nineties though the mid-aughts, and now it feels hotter than I can remember since I was in college,” Hwang says. “A lot of these issues are coming to the fore again, possibly in relation to America becoming close to a majority-minority country and the demographic implications of that, in which case it might get worse before it gets better. For America to redefine itself now as something other than a primarily white nation is kind of a wrenching identity process.”
Though Hwang’s extensive body of work spans opera librettos, television, and film, he has most often explored this process through his plays, which he began writing as an English major at Stanford University after short stories didn’t quite pan out. “I didn’t find myself particularly attracted to the form or good at the form,” he recalls. “But I was a violinist and played in a fair number of pit orchestras, and had always been attracted to staying around after rehearsals and listening to the director give notes. And so I decided to try my hand at writing some plays.”
Hwang showed his plays to a professor who “said they were really bad, and they were,” but helped his student develop an independent study that would create a major in playwriting at a school where none existed. Hwang’s early attempts at playwriting showed none of the hallmarks of what would later become defining themes in his work—“they were mostly about metaphysical questions”—until the summer before his senior year when he had the opportunity to study with Sam Shepard (Buried Child, True West), and Maria Irene Fornes (And What of the Night?, Mud).
“They taught us to write from the unconscious, and I found that these issues started appearing on the page,” says the playwright, the son of first generation Chinese immigrants. “I was brought up to be as American as [my parents] could make me. I didn’t learn Chinese and didn’t know when Chinese New Year was, so sometimes I wonder if they tried to raise me more traditionally if I wouldn’t have ended up interested in China and ethnic identity. Clearly, some part of me was interested in the Asian-American identity and East/West. My conscious mind hadn’t figured that out yet, so writing became a way to figure out how I feel about something deep inside of me and that is what it has remained.”
The result of this revelation was FOB (an acronym for fresh off the boat), which explores the contrasts and conflicts between established Asian Americans and new immigrants; it remains the playwright’s sentimental favorite because “I wrote it before I knew how to write a play and it just kind of came out. I don’t know that I know how to do that now.” Hwang used a lot of his father’s stories in FOB and, indeed, his father was in attendance when Hwang premiered the play in his Stanford dorm senior year. “He was very moved by the whole thing,” Hwang recalls, “and that cleared the way for me to become a playwright because he’d been pretty opposed to it, so I did myself a favor inadvertently by including a lot of his stories.”
If the elder Hwang had had further doubts, they would have been eradicated soon enough by the subsequent and fortuitous events that launched his son’s career. Hwang sent FOB off to the prestigious Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, where it was accepted. Then, just fourteen months after he graduated, FOB had its New York premiere at no less than the Public Theater under the auspices of founder Joseph Papp.
“I decided not to stay for the opening,” Hwang recalls. “I thought, ‘I want to put physical distance between myself and the reviews. If they’re good, I don’t want to think I’m a genius, and if they’re bad, I don’t want to be devastated,’ so I went back to California. Turned out they were good”—FOB won the 1980 Obie for Best New American Play—“and Joe Papp was basically saying he would produce whatever I write, and I thought, ‘I guess I’m a playwright,’ but because everything came so easily, and I have this odd story, I feel like I didn’t really understand that I was always going to be a writer until I had my first flop.”
That was in 1986, when Rich Relations, Hwang’s first play to feature all non-Asian characters, opened off-Broadway at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre. The play was a critical failure, something Hwang believes was necessary and important to cement his identity as a writer and define his artistic values. Perhaps more importantly, writing the play illustrated Hwang’s desire to experiment with form and content, an evolution that resulted in his next play, M. Butterfly.
From the time it was written, “M. Butterfly didn’t get changed much,” Hwang says. “It was during an earlier era where development wasn’t as stressed. I never heard that script read out loud until the first day of [out-of-town tryout] rehearsals for Broadway. It was an old-school process, and John Dexter was an old-school English director who didn’t feel it was the director’s job to have much input into the text.”
Both Hwang’s and Dexter’s instincts proved correct; in 1988, M. Butterfly was the critically acclaimed, Pulitzer-nominated winner of the Tony (Hwang was the first Asian-American to take the prize), Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and John Gassner awards. That year also saw the premiere of Hwang’s first of three collaborations with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, which went on to tour forty cities, and heralded Hwang’s foray into musical theater.
“I was fortunate to have a strange story in that I got out of the starting gate very early. I’ve always been a writer and been able to make a living at it,” Hwang admits. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything, but there’s been periods of my career that have been weighed down by expectations and paralyzed by them. The years between the opening of M. Butterfly in ’88 and ’07, which was Yellow Face, were bumpy. I went for ten years between Golden Child (1998) and Yellow Face without writing an original, new, full-length play. [It should be noted, however, that Hwang had two Broadway successes with the books for Aida and Flower Drum Song in 2000 and 2002, respectively; the latter earned him his third Tony nomination.] I have nothing to complain about, but there have been struggles.”
Yellow Face is actually the result of, and the closure on, one of them. In 1993, Face Value was to have been Hwang’s second Broadway production (that honor went to Obie winner and Tony nominee Golden Child five years later). Based on the controversy surrounding white British actor Jonathan Pryce’s casting as the Vietnamese pimp in London’s 1989 premiere of Miss Saigon as well its subsequent Broadway debut, Face Value closed in previews. The script has never even been published.
Hwang’s response to both the Miss Saigon controversy and the failure of Face Value was Yellow Face, a semi-autobiographical comedic retelling of the events, documentary-style, that earned Hwang his third Pulitzer nomination (1982’s The Dance and the Railroad was the first) and third Obie after it played at—where else?—the Public Theater in 2007. “Yellow Face was pretty important to me because it put some closure on something that I struggled with, a political problem that I’d been trying to work out since the Miss Saigon protests in the nineties,” says Hwang, who himself had publicly protested. “For seventeen years, I tried to figure out some sort of reaction to process what happened and what I went through with Face Value. Finally, the Yellow Face opening, and feeling good about that and being proud of that, was the conclusion of a long project.”
Hwang returned to Broadway in 2011 with Chinglish, his only play to be set in contemporary China, which he first visited in 1992. “When I was a kid, you couldn’t go to China because it was a Communist country behind the Bamboo Curtain,” Hwang points out. “My career started to gain some momentum during the period when China began to emerge, and the notion of distancing ourselves, which was a very sensible strategy in some sense in the sixties and seventies became less necessary by the eighties, and even my father [a banker] wanted to start doing business in China; he left in ’48 and probably never went back until the early eighties. I go now two or three times a year for various work reasons, and that led to Chinglish.”
In 2014, Hwang had two more premieres—Kung Fu and Cain and Abel—as well as his first official teaching position, at Columbia University, where he began the fall semester as the new director of the Playwriting Concentration. He also serves as an associate professor of Theatre in Playwriting along with Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage (Ruined).
In addition to teaching, Hwang’s got a slew of other projects in the works—“Kung Fu rewrites, a couple of musicals, one with singer/songwriter Amy Mann, a couple of operas; it takes a while for things to happen”—including an Asian-American television series. “I never wanted to do TV because I never watched it, but then I found myself watching it—the shows everybody likes, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Dexter—so I want to try one,” he says. “It may or may not become kind of a Sex in the City in contemporary China. Sometimes I wonder why I keep going back to this particular subject matter; all I know is even today, when I’ve been able to work on a lot of different subjects, when something gets me excited and makes me want to spend some time with it, it’s always in this basic subject arena. I started doing this at a time when there was still a need to claim that this was legitimate subject matter for American theaters, so I’m shaped by the experience for my generation, but also acknowledge that time has moved on, so maybe my aesthetic has evolved but doesn’t seem to have evolved to the point where I’m writing characters that are not racially identifiable.”
But the next generation is, and they’re taking the conversation—and the representation—to the next level. Hwang knows this from his two teenaged children, who he says have taught him a lot about race today and the “particularly fluid category of being multiracial.” And from younger Asian-American playwrights who he feels are conscious of their identity and who may or may not write on subjects related to race and culture, but nonetheless cast diversely and represent themselves on stage.
“I learned an important lesson from Philip Glass. When you collaborate with younger people, there’s a different energy, aesthetic, different degree of hunger,” Hwang maintains. “When I started out, I was staking out territory, discussing the fluidity of identity, but what it means to be Asian-American is changing, and the aesthetic representation of that is changing as well.”
David Henry Hwang speaks as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series at Kleinhans on November 19 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets, visit justbuffalo.org/babel/current-season.
Donna Hoke is a playwright who writes about theater topics for Spree. donnahoke.com