David Henry Hwang Interview
By: PP Wong
Credit: Lia Chang
avid Henry Hwang is an American Chinese playwright, librettist and screenwriter. After graduating from Stanford, Hwang's first play FOB (Fresh off the Boat) went on to win an Obie Award. He has been nominated twice for The Pulitzer Prize for drama and won a Tony award for M.Butterfly.
Mr Hwang sits on the boards of the Dramatists Guild, Young Playwrights Inc. and the Museum Of Chinese in the Americas. From 1994–2001, he served on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
David Henry Hwang is also known for championing Asians in the Arts industry. In 1991, Mr Hwang was one of the first to vocally protest against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a key role in Miss Saigon.
In his interview with BW, the big hearted Mr Hwang shares his knowledge and fascinating insights about race and writing.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Our dog, Snickers (tween-sized dachshund), so I can sleep a lot yet still rule the house.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Some Molly and some arsenic, because I would want to have a good time, then exit.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Hopeful. Down-to-earth. Guarded.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Shakespeare cuz he wrote a LOT of plays, and they’re almost all good.
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
Fried banana. Is that the same as a banana fritter?
You’ve received a Tony award, had your plays on Broadway and travelled the world. You could have a quiet life out of the limelight drinking cocktails on a beach in Hawaii. What drives you to keep doing what you are doing?
I suppose I continue writing because I’m still excited about new stories and new dramatic forms. I love making theatre, and even some of the more infuriating aspects of show business, such as greed and blatant commercialism. Every day, I wake up and am excited about the creative tasks before me. I don’t feel I’m ready to start lounging on a beach in Hawaii, which would seem like a kind of death to me (I love Hawaii, it’s the lounging around part I would abhor).
I hope I’m someone who continues writing and exploring through art until the day I drop dead; for me, the artistic process is a large part of what makes life meaningful. Also, while I’ve been fortunate to have had success in my chosen field, I still have to make a living, you know. Like, I have kids that’ll be going to college!
A number of your plays have dealt with racial issues and prejudices. What prejudices have you faced and how have you overcome them?
I feel like, in many ways, being Asian has been an advantage for me because, when I first started having my plays produced in 1980, not many authors were tackling this subject matter, and I had the field pretty much to myself. Of course, that’s not true today – happily, there are many wonderful Asian writers. As my career continued, however, I felt my race became something of a handicap because certain segments of the theatrical and literary communities would pigeonhole me as an “ethnic” writer, which at that time, implied my work was necessarily limited, in terms of audience and “universality.” Society has progressed since then, and I’ve also enjoyed enough commercial success to quell those doubts. Nowadays, my only quibble concerns theatres and producers choosing not to do my work (usually in smaller markets) because they fear they can’t find Asian actors, or that the content won’t appeal to their local audiences.
In the past, you have spoken up against the casting of Caucasian actors that “yellow up” to play Asian roles.
Some people have argued that if Asians want to play characters with British names (such as Shakespearean roles), why is it wrong for Caucasians to play roles intended for Asian people?
I think it’s important to parse the “yellow face” casting question into two separate issues. The first is equal employment opportunity. In New York, a group called the Asian American Performers Action Coalition crunched the casting numbers by race over the past six years: on Broadway and the sixteen major Off-Broadway theatres, 80% of the roles went to white performers, and 20% to ALL minorities (including 2% to Asian Americans). In any other industry, one would be appalled by such an absence of employment diversity. Not only is it unjust, it’s bad business for theatre, which is drawing its audience and artists from an increasingly shrinking portion of the population. In short, theatre is becoming like the American Republican Party.
So, where it comes to employment opportunity, the goal becomes to increase that 20%. Minorities playing “Caucasian” roles does so; white actors using “multicultural casting” as an excuse to grab even more jobs for themselves, is counterproductive.
The second issue is aesthetic. In an artistic sense, there may be times when it is interesting to cast actors against ethnic type, but the director/producers had better have thought through their rationale and not get childishly defensive (RSC? Hello!) when they get called on their shit.
What advice would you give to a playwright who wants to write a comic play?
The trick with comedy is not to try and be funny, but to be truthful to your characters as they experience a funny situation. Most of the time, I imagine a scene will be funny if there is something quirky or off-beat going on. But I don’t know if it’s going to elicit guffaws, or merely a chuckle. For instance, while writing my play CHINGLISH, I imagined that certain scenes would be amusing. But not until we heard the script read out loud by actors, did I realize it was a laugh-out-loud comedy.
Your play Chinglish is about cultural misunderstandings. What are the biggest cultural misunderstandings towards Asians in American society?
I think the biggest stereotype that Asian Americans face is that we are perpetual foreigners. One’s forebears may have been in the US for generations, and people still ask, “Where are you really from?” and comment, “You speak really good English!” Most of the time, this is just annoying, but the fact that our loyalty is always suspect can have more serious repercussions, and certainly will if hostilities should arise between the US and China, for instance
What is the next scene in David Henry Hwang’s busy life?
My next show is KUNG FU, about the life of Bruce Lee, which will open in New York on February 24, 2014.
In addition, I’m working on musicals with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann, THE FORGOTTEN ARM, and Anne-Marie Milazzo, PRETTY DEAD GIRL, as well as an animated feature for Dreamworks, and I am creating a new TV series about the expat community in contemporary Shanghai.
I also have three operas in the works: AN AMERICAN SOLDIER, about the hazing death of Private Danny Chen, with music by Huang Ruo at Washington National Opera; DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER, based on the classic Chinese novel, with music by Bright Sheng at Santa Fe Opera; and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, based on Carroll, with music by Unsuk Chin, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. We are also hoping to bring CHINGLISH to the West End in 2014, and launch a Broadway revival of M. BUTTERFLY.BW