David Henry Hwang got his first break in 1980, when a New York theatre sought to redress accusations of ‘yellowface’. In the 40 years since, the Asian-American playwright has had many more breakthroughs, writes Howard Sherman
While David Henry Hwang appreciated the acclaim that came with being the first Asian-American playwright to have a show produced on Broadway, with M Butterfly in 1988, looking back, he says it put him in a difficult position.
“There are obviously great things about getting to lead some kind of breakthrough or being the first,” Hwang says. “But the downside is that there’s an impossible set of expectations that you’re then expected to carry, too. If there’s only one Asian-American or Native American playwright, it’s like that person is expected to speak for the entire community. It’s just not possible for any one individual to speak for the whole of an ethnic group, a racial group, a community, a nation… anything.”
Hwang’s voice is currently being heard in Soft Power, which he wrote with composer Jeanine Tesori, at New York’s Public Theater. Because of its unique structure, Hwang describes it as a play that becomes a musical: the first 20 or so minutes of the show are entirely spoken, and it turns into a musical only when the character of David Henry Hwang is inexplicably stabbed while walking home with groceries – an incident taken from Hwang’s own life, when he was knifed in the neck near his Brooklyn home in a random and unsolved attack in 2015. In the show, an elaborate musical emerges while he is unconscious.
That musical is an audacious inversion of the racial tropes of The King and I, in which, instead of a white woman teaching an Asian monarch about Western ways, a Chinese businessman begins a chaste romance with Hillary Clinton and teaches her about Chinese society and culture. Except for the actor playing Clinton, the entire company is Asian-American, with many playing Caucasian characters, echoing the practice of yellowface that has plagued several productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals over the years.
“It was specifically a reaction to having seen Bartlett Sher’s production [of The King and I],” Hwang says. “I’d been thinking about the white-saviour trope, whether it’s in The King and I, Seven Years in Tibet or Lawrence of Arabia, and how the roles that the actual white saviours played were considerably smaller.”
What was your first theatrical job?
Producing FOB at the Public Theater.
What was your first non-theatrical job?
I taught writing at Menlo-Atherton High School.
What’s your next job?
A revival of Aida in 2020.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
A certain amount of luck is a huge factor in this business.
Who or what has been your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t try to second-guess what you think they’re looking for. Try to react to the material as honestly as possible.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what might you have been?
I’d like to have been a jazz violinist or a record producer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t name the Scottish play and there’s a particular pen that I always like to write with.
Hwang says that he and director Leigh Silverman began talking about the concept early on, realising it would be difficult to achieve.
“You have to create a musical that has an ironic frame,” explains Hwang, “and that you know the audience knows is not true. But it has to be delivered with absolute sincerity and craftsmanship.” He says Tesori’s participation was essential to making the show work.
The show has evolved over time, not least because an early version, first read on election day in 2016, imagined the Chinese businessman helping President Hillary Clinton to solve gun violence. The next morning, Hwang thought: “This election is going to be really bad for the country, but it could be really good for the musical.”
The show was first produced last summer at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. In its move to the Public Theater, Hwang says that the “lens” of the original has become more sharply focused and the tone of the play more serious.
The Public has been an artistic home for Hwang since the start of his career. His first play, FOB, originally produced in his Stanford University dormitory, reached New York 14 months later, in 1980, as a result of efforts by artistic director Joseph Papp to counteract the protests that had arisen over a play at the theatre that deployed yellowface. Papp went on to produce three more of Hwang’s shows in rapid succession.
“I’m really the beneficiary of affirmative action,” says Hwang. “Affirmative action identifies a social need and then creates a programme to address it. That’s basically what Joe did single-handedly. So, the door opened and I was the guy who got to walk through.”
Following his 1988 success with M Butterfly, Hwang became widely known for leading the protest over the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a French-Vietnamese character in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon. He said that, as the author of a play that critiqued the opera Madama Butterfly, it was inevitable that he wouldn’t like a modern version of the same story. That said, he is quick to note that, despite that, his advocacy was in relation to the casting, because he doesn’t believe that works should be banned.
“But I do think they can be critiqued,” he affirms. “I think protests are fine. I believe a producer has the right to put on whatever they want and people who don’t like it have the right to protest as loudly as they want. In my view, that’s the best way to balance people’s civil liberties and to continue to have debate in a free society.”
The whole experience, which Hwang says was “powerful and somewhat traumatic”, led him to try to explore it through his work. Of his first attempt, the comedy Face Value, which closed during previews on Broadway in 1993, Hwang says: “My impulse was to write a farce of mistaken identity, and I think that was a good impulse. But the first time I tried to do it, there was some combination of my not being ready to process all the issues that came up for me – and that came up for our society – during the Miss Saigon protest, and an inability craft-wise to be able to put together a Noises Off-like farce.”
‘One of the things that’s great about the young writers is that they’re very free in terms of how they approach form’
Hwang returned to the theme a decade later with his play Yellow Face. “It was basically the same idea: a comedy of mistaken identity. But rather than trying to do a physical farce, I decided to do a stage mockumentary that would take as its model a Moisés Kaufman-type theatre piece.”
Yellow Face was the first time that Hwang had written himself into his own work, as he did later with Soft Power. He points to the plays I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright and Well by Lisa Kron as inspirations for doing so, noting that Kron had also played herself.
“With Yellow Face, I wanted to use two real-life incidents as bookends,” he says. “They were the protests against Jonathan Pryce coming in as the Engineer, and the accusations against my father, who was accused by the New York Times of laundering money for China in the 1990s. It just made sense to create a role of an authorial stand-in and give him my name. In Soft Power, I wasn’t planning to do that, except that my stabbing ended up being somewhat central as a device and a focusing lens for the show.”
When M Butterfly returned to Broadway in 2017, Hwang undertook a significant rewrite – an unusual step for a play that had been so highly acclaimed. But he felt it was necessary because the show was no longer able to rely on “tricking the audience”, as he puts it. But there were other factors as well.
“One motivation was the shifting East-West power balance since 1988.” He goes on to say: “The fact that more material had come out about the actual case [of the disgraced French diplomat and convicted spy, Bernard Boursicot, who learnt at his trial that the Chinese woman who had been his secret lover for nearly 20 years was a man] provided a plot mechanism to be able to address those things. I feel very good about that rewrite. I think the new script is better, more nuanced, more complicated and less schematic than that of the old M Butterfly.”
Hwang says teaching playwriting at Columbia University has given him a chance to formalise the mentoring he has done for many years, likening himself to a cobbler who passes down his craft. It also gives him a perspective on the newest generation of playwrights.
“One of the things that’s great about the young writers coming up is that they’re very free in terms of how they approach form,” he says. “If they’re writers of colour, or non-binary writers, and certainly if they’re gay writers, they’re very comfortable writing from their points of view, their experiences, their community, and feeling confident that these are stories that belong in the American theatre. That’s very different from when I started out. I find it very encouraging.”
Soft Power runs at the Public Theater, New York, until November 17
Born: Los Angeles, 1957
Training: BA in English, Stanford University; Yale School of Drama
• FOB, Public Theater (1980)
• The Dance and the Railroad, Public Theater (1981)
• M Butterfly, Broadway (1988)
• Golden Child, Public Theater (1996) and Broadway (1998)
• Aida, Broadway (2000)
• Flower Drum Song, Broadway (2002)
• Yellow Face, Public Theater (2007)
• Chinglish, Goodman Theatre and Broadway (2011)
• Soft Power, Center Theatre Group (2018); Public Theater (2019)
• Obie awards for FOB (1981), Golden Child (1997) and Yellow Face (2008)
• Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for M Butterfly (1988)
• William Inge Award for distinguished achievement in American theatre (2012)
• Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award (2012)
• American Theater Hall of Fame (2018)
Agent: Jack Tantleff, Paradigm Talent and Literary Agency