David Henry Hwang, Master Playwright
Dmae features David Henry Hwang, Tony award-winning playwright ofÂ M. Butterfly,Â The Dance and the RailroadÂ andÂ ChinglishÂ which soon opens onÂ Jan. 11-Feb. 9 at Portland Center Stage.Â Â For the last 30 years, Hwang has had a prolific career on the stage and screen and expanded into opera projects with Phillip Glass and musical theatre adaptions like Disneyâ€™s Aida with Elton John and Tarzan with Phil Collins, but he generally gravitates to â€œthe same patch of soilâ€â€”as he calls itâ€”of stage plays based on Asian and Asian American themes. Many Asian American theatre artists regard Hwang as the August Wilson of his generation.
Photo credit: Lia Chang
Interview features music by Jon Jang from his “Two Flowers On A Stem” CD. Find out more at JonJang.com
David Henry HwangÂ remains the most well-known and successful Asian American theatre artist in the country. Â Throughout his career heâ€™s been an outspoken theatre activist starting in the 90s when he protested the casting Jonathan Pryce as an Asian in the Broadway production ofÂ Miss Saigon.Â M. Butterfly remains Hwangâ€™s best known and most produced work. Based on a true story of a French diplomat who had a 20-year relationship with a Chinese Opera star he believed to be female. Winner of the Obie award for FOB, Hwang was also a finalist for the Pulitzer for M. ButterflyÂ and forÂ The Dance and the Railroad.Â
Hwang’sÂ newest play is Kung FunÂ about the life of Bruce Lee featuring martial arts with original music. The play opens Feb. 11-March 23 at Signature Theatre in NYC.Â
The last Hwang play produced in Portland was M. ButterflyÂ at Oregon Shakespeare Festival â€“ Portland in 1992.Â WithÂ Chinglish, Hwang delves deeply into language and cultural barriers. Â The plays is bi-lingual and centers on the story of a white American businessman who travels to China hoping he can convince local officials to hire his company to create signage in English for visitors in China.
ChinglishÂ not only deals with language problems but also cultural misinterpretations. The plot surrounds the complications of business deal while mixing a love story between the businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, and the female lead Xi Yan, the Vice Minister of Culture. ThroughÂ ChinglishÂ Hwang deftly depicts cultural assumptions people make that lead to frustrations and miscommunication.
ChinglishÂ opens soon at Portland Center Stage (Jan. 11-Feb. 9).Â ChinglishÂ also signals the return of a David Henry Hwang play since OSF-Portland producedÂ M. ButterflyÂ back in 1992. Dmae Roberts talked with Hwang Â to ask him about his career and whatÂ ChinglishÂ means to him.
Ticket and Performance Information |Â ChinglishÂ
When: January 11 â€“ February 9, 2014Â
Preview Performances:Â January 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 7:30 p.m.Â Opening Night:Â Friday, January 17, 7:30 p.m.
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 p.m. matinees and 7:30 p.m. evenings on select Sundays and Saturdays; matinees at noon on select Thursdays. Complete schedule: http://www.pcs.org/chinglish/
Where:Â On the Main Stage at The Gerding Theater at the Armory
Preview tickets start at $29. Regular tickets start at $33.Â Discounts for students, those under 25 and groups.
By Phone:Â 503.445.3700, 12â€“6 p.m.
In Person:Â PCSâ€™s box office is at 128 NW Eleventh Avenue
12 p.m.Â â€“Â curtain on performance days
12â€“6 p.m. on non-performance days
Rush Tickets:Â $20
Groups:Â Discounts for groups of 10 or more.
Group tickets can purchased at 503.445.3794.
Please Note:Â Recommended for ages 16+; mature content, language and sexuality.
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Read the full feature story on David Henry Hwang here or at Oregon ArtsWatch.Â
For many Asian American theatre artists, Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang is as revered as the late August Wilson. Hwang resists any comparison to Wilson, because he says his process has been â€œless deliberateâ€ than Wilsonâ€™s challenge to chronicle each decade of African American history in the 20th century. For the last 30 years, Hwang has written for the screen and opera projects with Philip Glass and with Elton John on Disneyâ€™s â€œAida.â€ But his â€œpersonal writingâ€ generally gravitates to â€œthe same patch of soilâ€â€”as he calls itâ€”of Asian and Asian American themes.
I didnâ€™t know much about Hwang until I understudied “M. Butterfly” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Portland (the previous incarnation of Portland Center Stage) in 1992. “M. Butterfly” was produced on Broadway in 1988 and won the Tony award. No other Hwang play had been done professionally in Portland until that time. And in pre-internet days it wasnâ€™t as easy to learn about other plays particularly by Asian Americans let alone see their work produced locally.
“M. Butterfly” remains Hwangâ€™s best-known and most-produced work. Based on a true story of a French diplomat who had a 20-year relationship with a Chinese Opera star he believed to be female, Hwang deconstructed Pucciniâ€™s opera â€œMadama Butterflyâ€ in a biting and tragic commentary of orientalism and Asian festishism.
Most of Hwangâ€™s plays have been based on Asian American history and themes. Others include:
- â€œFOBâ€ dramatized the conflicts between Fresh Off The Boat immigrants and established Asian Americans and won the Obie award in 1980.
- â€œDance and the Railroadâ€ in 1981 documented a strike by Chinese railroad workers in 1867 through the nuances of Chinese Opera (recently revived at Signature Theatre in NYC).
- â€œGolden Childâ€ in 1996 detailed the lives of an early 20th century Chinese family.
- And Hwangâ€™s partly autobiographical 2007 play â€œYellow Faceâ€ showed subtle conflicts about the politics of casting racially.
With “M. Butterfly” Hwang turned his focus to larger international themes. He does so once again with “Chinglish” about the difficulties of language and culture. The play opens soon atÂ Portland Center Stage (Jan. 11-Feb. 9).Â “Chinglish” also signals the first return of a David Henry Hwang playÂ to PortlandÂ since that “M. Butterfly.â€
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Itâ€™s not uncommon for children of immigrants to feel guilt because they arenâ€™t fluent in their parentâ€™s original languages. I can attest to that myself as the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant. Hwang parents both emigrated from different parts of Asia to live in Los Angeles where Hwang grew up. His father, a banker, originally came from Shanghai and his mother, a piano teacher, was Fujinese Chinese from the Philippines. So he says English became the â€œlingua francaâ€ in the Hwang household.
â€œThis was the 60s and people were pretty assimilationist,â€ says Hwang. â€œThey did a token effort for my sister and me to take Chinese, but being kids, we didnâ€™t want to and they didnâ€™t fight very hard, so my Chinese to this day is almost nonexistent which is something Iâ€™m still quite ashamed of and struggle with.â€
Most children of immigrants grow up hearing different languages, especially in Asian communities. Hwang spent â€œa lot of my life trying to navigate the language barrierâ€ with relatives who didnâ€™t speak English. Something as simple as figuring out whether someone â€œalreadyâ€ went to the market or is â€œplanning to goâ€ to market can be a chore if one doesnâ€™t speak the language.
â€œIt came naturally to me,â€ says Hwang, â€œto write about linguistic differences and struggling across that barrier.â€
Delving deeply into language barriers is at the crux of “Chinglish,â€ a bi-lingual play about a white American businessman who travels to China hoping that local officials will hire his company to create signage in English for visitors. â€œChinglishâ€ not only deals with language problems but also cultural misinterpretations. The complications of the business deal intertwine with a love story between the businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, and the female lead Xi Yan, the Vice Minister of Culture. Through “Chinglish” Hwang deftly depicts cultural assumptions people make that lead to miscommunication.
â€œEven when you speak the same language,â€ Hwang says, â€œparticularly when you get into love, get into business itâ€™s very easy to misunderstand each other and in some sense none of us speak the language perfectly.â€
In one funny scene in “Chinglish,” Xi Yan is trying to tell Daniel that his translator did a favor for the Minister of Culture by getting his son into a university in Bath, England. But Daniel takes it to mean a literal bath and physical backdoor until Xi starts shouting.
Xi: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Bath! Is City! In England!
Daniel: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Oh, Bath is a city!
Xi: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â With university!
Daniel: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Peter got Caiâ€™s son into a university in England?
Xi: Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Yes! Through backdoor!
A play like “Chinglish” does not translate to instant success. Very few Broadway plays, if any, have been produced as bilingual productions, especially with actors who speak in Mandarin Chinese (with projected translation titles) for a quarter of the play.
â€œAnd yeah, weâ€™re also going to need a white actor whoâ€™s fluent in Mandarin,â€ Hwang laughs when he describes his play as if he were pitching it. â€œHope we find someone!â€
But he did. And the risk paid off for Hwang and the producers of “Chinglish.â€ The Broadway production cost about $3.5 million according toÂ a NY Times article by Patrick Healy (10/20/11).Â As Hwang jokes, with â€œChinglishâ€ he has written a Broadway playÂ even â€œstraight guys want to go to.â€ The play toured around the country and internationally and, according to Hwang, draws both Westerners and Chinese.
Part of the appeal are the actual English language signs Hwang found during visits to China: â€œDeformed Manâ€™s Toiletâ€ for a restroom for handicapped patrons, and a sign in a ladiesâ€™ restroom reading, â€œWash After Relief.â€
Though the play also points out the problems with translation that English speakers can have in China, Hwang was well aware that this kind of humor has a price.
â€œI think thereâ€™s a risk of having it become just an excuse to denigrate the Chinese people or Asians,â€ says Hwang. â€œSo I hope I make an effective effort to have a lot of Western characters who are screwing up Chinese from their end as well, starting with the actual example of a Western academic magazine that tried to put Chinese poetry on its cover and ended up putting a call girl ad from Shanghai.â€
The effort to poke fun equally paid off when the play toured the Broadway production of “Chinglish” earlier in March 2013 to the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Â The audience was about 75 percent Asian. Hwangâ€™s plays usually draw more Asian audiences in America but this one was bilingual. They got ALL the jokesâ€”something he found exhilarating.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve always gotten big laughs,â€ Hwang says, â€œbut in Hong Kong there was that sense â€˜oh we recognize that, I know what theyâ€™re talking about and they put that on stage and thatâ€™s so funny.â€™ Thereâ€™s a moment in the second act of “Chinglish” when a character starts to go on this big rant against the Chinese government. In Hong Kong when the actor did that, the audience starting cheering, which was surprisingly kind of edgy and more subversive than when it plays in the States.â€
STRANGER THAN FICTION
The playâ€™s edginess might have dissuaded the government of China to host a production. To date few of Hwang’s plays have been done there. While Hwang was in negotiations with China about producing “Chinglish” there,Â the April 2012 story of Bo Xilai,Â a former high-ranking politician in Chongquing accused of corruption, broke in the press. Â His wife Gu Kailai, a lawyer and businesswoman was subsequentlyÂ convicted of murderingÂ British businessman Neil Heywood.
While parallels to the Bo Xilai an Gu Kailai case helped “Chinglish” in most parts of the world, it got a little â€œtoo close to actual eventsâ€ for Chinese producers. Hwang received a flood of emails comparing “Chinglish” to the scandal, and Tina Brown, then editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast asked him to write about it in an opinion piece aptly calledÂ â€œStranger Than Fiction.â€
In some ways, Hwang felt exonerated by the case because many Chinese nationals had objected to his portrayal of a wife of a Chinese official entering into an affair with a foreigner. They thought it was insulting and unlikely. Hwang calls that â€œwishful thinking.â€ Gu Kailai was rumored to have had an affair with Neil Heywood.
â€œI was trying to deal in “Chinglish” with some patterns that generally exist in China,â€ says Hwang. â€œWhen someone is put on trial for corruption, itâ€™s almost never about the corruption. There is another kind of power struggle going on and the corruption charge becomes a means to take down your enemy. I put that in “Chinglish” because itâ€™s generally true.â€
WRITING FROM A CULTURAL PLACE
Hwang never intended to become a playwright documenting Asian Americans. In college he was in a band with friend and playwright Phillip Kan Gotanda, who was writing a musical for his play at East West Players. Before his senior year, he took workshops with playwrights Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes.
â€œThey taught us to write from our subconscious,â€ says Hwang. â€œThese stories and themes started appearing on the pageâ€”things like being Asian American, immigration, assimilation, clash of cultures. So some part of me was incredibly interested in these issues, but my conscious mind hadnâ€™t figured that out yet.â€
In the last 30 years his themes have changed with the evolution of Asian American identity. Â When Hwang first started writing in the 1980s, Asian Americans wanted to to distance themselves from the stereotype of the â€œperpetual foreigner,â€ he says.
â€œYou know oneâ€™s fore-bearers can be in this country for several generations,â€ says Hwang â€œand people still say â€˜oh you speak really good English.â€™ Back in the â€˜80s we really didnâ€™t want to be associated with the root culture. Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, and my sense of the zeitgeist of the Asian-American community right now is that multiculturalism has been overtaken by an idea sometimes called trans-culturalism, which is this notion that we can acknowledge all the differences that make us who we are.â€
For the longest time, Hwang was the only Asian American playwright to be produced on Broadway. Though he says Broadway chooses plays for commercial viability, many of his plays also have been hits first at off-Broadway and in not for profit and regional theatres where he believes the best work happens.
He also says heâ€™s not the only Asian American playwright on Broadway anymore. Rajiv Josephâ€™s play â€œBengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zooâ€ ran in the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in 2011.
ACTIVISM IN THEATRE
Hwang has also been a theatre activist. In the 90s he protested the casting of Jonathon Pryce as an Asian in the Broadway production of â€œMiss Saigon.â€ Hwang later included some of that experience in his play â€œYellow Face.â€
In 2012 he moderated an industry roundtable called â€œRepresentAsianâ€ by the Asian Performing Artists Action Coalition in New York City. The group released a report revealing the number of Asian Americans cast in city theaters had dropped from 3 percent five years earlier to 1 percent. According to APAACâ€™s report, 20 percent went to minorities of all kinds, but Asian actors were least likely to be employed. With more than 18 million Asian Pacific Americans nationally, the population is quickly becoming the fastest growing minority in America, and Hwang says theatres are not thinking ahead when casting.
â€œI think in any other industry we would have to consider that a pretty appalling record, and itâ€™s not good business anyway,â€ says Hwang. â€œThat means that theatre is increasingly catering to and drawing from a segment of the population that is continually shrinking. So the American theatre is becoming more and more like the American Republican party.â€
Hwang believes theatres need to rethink old notions and advises unless thereâ€™s a specific reason to cast a Caucasian actor it should be open to everyone. â€œAnd conversely,â€ he says, â€œwhen you write a part for an actor of color, if you cast a Caucasian actor in that part, youâ€™re not doing anything to improve the 20 percent figure.â€
Meanwhile Hwang is creating a great leading man role for young actors in â€˜Kung Fu,â€ his newest play, which is based on the life of Bruce Lee. The play features martial arts and original music. Hwang thinks of it â€œas a dance-ical not a musicalâ€ because there are musical numbers without the singing. â€œKung Fuâ€ opens Feb. 11-March 23 at theÂ Signature TheatreÂ where they devote an entire season to the work of one playwright.
Soon Hwang will have another connection to Oregon through Oregon Shakespeare Festivalâ€™s â€œAmerican Revolutions: the United States History Cycle.â€ Heâ€™s been commissioned to write a new play. Heâ€™ll be focusing on his motherâ€™s life in the Philippines, a place heâ€™s visited as a child. Heâ€™s in the research phase but looking forward to working with a â€œhuge cast,â€ which is not â€œsomething American playwrights get to do nowadays.â€
When asked for advice by young writers, Hwang encourages them to find whatâ€™s new and different from their point of view. Young Asian American writers like Young Jean Lee and Mike Liu impress him. He says they identify as Asian American but also write from outside that experience. To them, he says, their Asian American identity still â€œpermeates what they write whether or not the subject matter is explicitly Asian.â€
And as he looks back on his 30 years of work as a playwright, David Henry Hwang becomes more philosophical.
â€œI hope that what Iâ€™ve done is to do what any good artist should do, which is chronicle my times and my experiences and the period that I lived in as fully and as theatrically as I can. And if that ends up being meaningful to people to future generations then I guess my work will survive and if not then itâ€™s not going to be necessary anymore and thatâ€™s okay too.â€