Feature: Playwright Henry David Hwang
With the new Chinglish, the Chicago premiere of Yellow Face and a revival of Family Devotions, we get a triple dose of Hwang’s work this summer.
By John Beer
Time Out Chicago, June 20,2011
Theatrically speaking, this summer in Chicago belongs to David Henry Hwang. Best known for his Tony-winning 1988 play M. Butterfly, the 53-year-old playwright is debuting his new Chinglish, depicting a Midwestern businessman’s encounter with China, at the Goodman. Meanwhile, Silk Road boasts the local premiere of Hwang’s daring 2007 satire Yellow Face, which grew out of the playwright’s protest against casting white actors in Asian roles and features a heavily fictionalized protagonist named David Henry Hwang. To complete the hat trick, later this summer Halcyon Theatre mounts his early Family Devotions. We caught up with the dapper Hwang in the Goodman’s mezzanine café.
Are you enjoying all this Chicago attention?
I’ve always wanted to have a presence here. Some people would say that this is the most vital place for theater in the country right now. Look, New York is the commercial capital of theater, there’s no question about that. But there’s a sense here that people are doing work for the right reasons.
How does Silk Road’s production of Yellow Face differ from the earlier ones in L. A. and New York?
The main difference for me is that we are working with a finished script! In the earlier productions I was still rewriting, discovering how the play was going to work.
How did the play change as you were rewriting it in earlier productions?
For one thing, in one draft, I went into much greater detail about Marcus’s character [the white actor who gets cast as an Asian in the play within the play]. Then I realized that Marcus only really matters as a foil to David Henry Hwang, so I took all that stuff out.
What’s it been like seeing these different versions of yourself onstage?
It’s always been clear that David Henry Hwang in Yellow Face is a different person. It’s hard to write autobiography in the theater. You can see this in Glass Menagerie, where Tom’s the least developed character; it’s a brilliant play, but he’s not as realized as the other characters. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, Jamie’s the least developed character. By deciding to make David Henry Hwang a character, it distanced me from it, gave me more freedom as a writer.
Have you been reworking Chinglish in rehearsals?
Chinglish hasn’t changed much from the first draft. The process is different with every play; M. Butterfly, also, was pretty much there from the beginning. It makes me a little nervous. I like to be rewriting, it gives me something to keep me busy. And I am polishing bits of it.
Chinglish is written partly in English and partly in Mandarin with projected translations. Did you always plan to focus on the language barrier between the Chinese and American characters?
I first had the idea to write something about China four or five years ago, and at that point, no, I didn’t know it was going to be about language, I didn’t know it would have a love story. I think part of the approach came from my work in opera; I got used to the idea of seeing my work in supertitles. And I wanted to explore how to represent onstage the differences between languages. But once I sat down to write the play, it was all there.
You’re not necessarily someone that people think of as a comic writer. But both of your most recent plays—Yellow Face and Chinglish—are comedies. Is there a reason you’ve been attracted to humor?
Well, I’ve always thought I was funny. And I did write comedies earlier. Family Devotions, for instance, which is being done here later in the summer, is a comedy. When I was just starting out, Joe Papp told me once, ‘I think you’re going to survive in this business. You can write comedy.’ But I think maybe I’ve learned how to shape those comic moments a little more effectively. My work in commercial theater has sharpened my skills in that regard.
At your recent conversation with Oskar Eustis in Hyde Park, there was an exchange about that commercial work. In what ways do you think you’ve learned from working on projects such as Aida or Tarzan?
I don’t really understand the idea that there are certain projects that as an artist you’re not supposed to work on. I suppose when I was younger I might have had ideas about purity. But I learned a lot from all these projects, about how to write comedy, for instance, just like, after M. Butterfly I wrote screenplays, and I learned about how to structure stories from working in the movies. I think as an artist your responsibility is to constantly expand your toolbox, to keep doing new things.
In addition to appearing as a character in Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang is also a major figure in Qui Nguyen’s play The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, which opened in New York this spring. Did you see it?
I did, and I loved it. It’s so exciting what Qui’s doing. He takes all these elements that are associated with Asian experience, like martial arts or fanboy nerdiness, but he’s not writing about identity politics. Well, in this last play he is, but in something like Soul Samurai, which I just saw in a strong production here, he’s really making a new thing. I’m supposed to get a recording of the rap [delivered by the character David Henry Hwang] from Agent G, so I can use it as my ringtone, but he hasn’t sent it yet.
What do you think about the work of Young Jean Lee?
She’s great. What I love is that she can do a project like Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which directly takes on the Asian experience, and then turn around and do something about African-American identity like The Passage, or do a cabaret show.
Do you see yourself as a trailblazer for writers such as Nguyen and Lee?
As a writer, you’re always building on what’s come before. When I was starting out, I was looking to the work of Maxine Hong Kingston, or Frank Chin, even though he hates my work.
Did you always plan to be a writer?
No, actually, I didn’t think of it as a career growing up. I still can’t write prose fiction or novels. I came to playwriting from music; my mother was a pianist and I played jazz violin. I still don’t pay that much attention to particular words, just like you don’t pay attention to the individual notes on a score: It’s about the movement that they create.
Do you still play music now?
It’s funny you ask that; I’ve been coming back to music after decades without playing. I recently played a show at Joe’s Pub and I’ve got an upcoming show at B.B. King’s in New York. Since I turned 50, I’ve been trying to develop some new hobbies. I’ve started cooking. It’s my version of a midlife crisis.