A #hyphenatedAsians POV: David Henry Hwang
Please give us a brief bio.
David Henry Hwang’s stage works include the plays "M. Butterfly," "Chinglish," "Yellow Face," "Kung Fu," "Golden Child," "The Dance and the Railroad," and "FOB," as well as the Broadway musicals Elton John & Tim Rice’s "Aida" (co-author), "Flower Drum Song" (2002 revival), and Disney’s "Tarzan." Hwang is a Tony Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time OBIE Award winner, and a three-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the most-produced living American opera librettist, whose works have been honored with two Grammy Awards, co-wrote the Gold Record Solo with the late pop icon Prince, and worked from 2015-2019 as a Writer/Consulting Producer for the Golden Globe-winning television series "The Affair." He is currently writing the live-action musical feature film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for Disney Studios and a movie to star actress Gemma Chan. Hwang serves as Head of Playwriting at Columbia University School of the Arts, and as Chair of the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards. "M. Butterfly" recently returned to Broadway in a revival directed by Julie Taymor, which marked Mr. Hwang’s eighth Broadway production. His newest work, "Soft Power," a collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori ("Fun Home"), premiered at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, where it won six Ovation Awards. Its subsequent run at the Public Theatre in NYC received four Outer Critics Honors, eleven Drama Desk Nominations, and was a Finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Where did life begin for you and what was your experience like growing up?
I was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, which today is home to one of the largest Chinese communities in America. When I was a kid, however, it was mainly a working class white and Latinx area, with only a smattering of Blacks and Asians. In fact, when my parents first tried to buy a home in this area, they were turned down because the owners wouldn’t sell to Chinese people. As an Asian-American kid during the '60s, I experienced microaggressions, but not a lot of outright racism. In retrospect, the place where I felt the most racism was watching American movies and TV. It got to the point where, if I knew a show or film had an Asian character, I would go out of my way not to watch it, since I had learned that these images would just make me feel badly. I suppose it’s therefore fitting that I’ve spent my adult life trying to create new Asian Pacific American (APA) stories and characters.
How did you identify yourself growing up and how has that evolved over time?
I didn’t think much about my identity growing up and just considered myself an American. I knew I was Chinese, of course, but I considered that a relatively minor detail, like having red hair. Only when I got to college and started trying to write plays, did I discover themes appearing on the page: immigration, assimilation, racism. So clearly, some part of me was incredibly interested in these questions, but it took the process of writing, and accessing my subconscious, to bring them to my attention. At that point, I started identifying as an Asian-American, which in the mid-1970s was a fairly new term. I still like the term today (or Asian Pacific Islander (API) American) because I believe it represents my reality: as a Chinese-American, I have more in common with a Laotian or Vietnamese-American than I do with a Chinese national in say Shanghai.
When you were growing up what was representation like for Asian-Americans and who were your role models/elders/influences as a Chinese-American artist?
I had no idea that I was going to become a playwright, or any sort of author, when I was growing up. But, as I mentioned before, I was acutely aware of the way Asians and APIs were represented in the popular media. We were so desperate in those days for any Asian character to be something other than a villain, a submissive female, or the butt of a joke. Once I got to college and began writing, I became influenced by novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, as well as artists from the emerging Asian-American arts scene in San Francisco, such as playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda, Momoko Iko, and Wakako Yamauchi. Playwright Frank Chin, the first AA dramatist to have a work staged Off-Broadway, was an inspiration too, but he quickly decided he hated me after my first play opened! The late actor/director Mako was also an important elder and a huge influence on my career.
How have you observed it (representation) to have changed over the course of your life and career, and are there any “watershed” moments that you can point to in regards to how Asian-American representation has changed in the arts world specifically?
In some ways, APA representation has improved considerably, but if you consider that it’s been over 50 years since I was a kid, progress has been glacially slow. From my very subjective viewpoint, here are some pop culture moments that have felt exciting and game-changing to me, sticking strictly to scripted works (and excluding my own): "Flower Drum Song," "Enter the Dragon," "Chan Is Missing," "Better Luck Tomorrow," "Joy Luck Club," "Who Killed Vincent Chin?," "Mulan," "Lilo and Stitch," "Saving Face," "Harold and Kumar...," "Fresh Off the Boat," "Crazy Rich Asians," "Killing Eve," "The Farewell."
One of the purposes of TUA is to feature a wide spectrum of Asian-American voices from a variety of fields so as to increase greater representation, which has only recently been on the uprise. As the first Asian-American to win a Tony Award for your play M. Butterfly, do you have any reflections to share with our readers about what it was/is like being “the first” and what pressures and/or responsibilities you feel were placed on you or your work?
The most difficult thing about being a “first” is that your work is expected to represent and speak for an entire community, ethnicity, or race of people. Obviously, this is impossible, since any group is necessarily diverse and encompasses a wide range of opinions and experiences. Understandably, some of the harshest criticisms come from your own community: those who don’t see themselves represented in your work and therefore accuse you of selling out. For instance, when my first play, "FOB," was produced Off-Broadway, a San Francisco Asian-American periodical claimed I had “set Asian America back twenty years.” And I was only 22 at the time! The only solution is a broader range of Asian-American stories, so that each person can find works which speak to them, among the inevitable pieces which do not.
What do you believe are some of the most damaging stereotypes that exist in the arts world about Asian-Americans and how do you believe them to impact opportunities for today’s up and coming Asian-American theatre artists and playwrights?
The most damaging stereotype from producers and casting agents is that they can’t find enough APA actors. Given how star-driven, even the theatre is today, this necessarily leads to companies avoiding works by APA playwrights. This stereotype only serves to illustrate the industry’s laziness. Every time I have written a challenging role for an APA character, I have been able to find an actor who has excelled in the role, and even launched some who became stars.
What are some of the obstacles you yourself have faced and how have you dealt with them?
I have been very fortunate to have been championed by some forward-thinking producers and critics, including Joseph Papp, Frank Rich, Rocco Landesman, and Stuart Ostrow. That said, the theatre industry can certainly be racist, and I’ve had to overcome that. When "FOB" was presented at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, I overheard the white sound designer ask, “So what are we going to use for this one? Chink music?” When "M. Butterfly" premiered in Washington, D.C. for its out-of-town tryout, one reviewer wrote, “If David Henry Hwang hates America so much, maybe his father should have stayed in China.” In the early '90s, when I was part of a protest against the yellow face casting of Jonathan Pryce in "Miss Saigon," every major theatre in America—with the notable exception of Joe Papp and the Public—came out against us. I guess I learned to take overcoming these obstacles as a badge of pride, and that it’s always better to speak out against racist behavior than to accommodate it.
Is there a particular point in time in which you look back on as being the period in which you became engaged in your identity? If so, who or what were the influencing factors and why?
As I mentioned above, I discovered myself as a playwright and an Asian-American pretty much simultaneously by learning (from teachers like playwrights Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes) to access my subconscious through my writing.
How would you say, if at all, that your sense of identity has influenced your art?
I think my exploration of identity has been at the center of my art.
What do you want people to take away from your body of works?
I hope people come to feel that APA stories and characters can embody all aspects of what it means to be human, just as I was raised to believe white characters can.
In the current climate of Black Lives Matter, what do you believe are the responsibilities that we, as Asian-Americans and members of the diaspora, have in dismantling anti-Blackness in our communities and showing up as vocal allies both as individuals and in the arts world?
I found my identity during an era when “Third World Solidarity” was the principle around which we organized our politics and our art. As APAs, our interests and stories absolutely align more closely with our Black, Latinx and Indigenous colleagues than with white supremacy, a fact I believe Asians have forgotten over the past couple of decades. I hope we use this moment to rediscover that ideal, particularly since the failure of “model minority-ism” has become glaringly obvious with the current explosion of anti-Asian COVID-19-related hate.
That said, I believe this current moment also needs to foreground this country’s anti-Blackness and violence against Black bodies. Along those lines, it’s important for APAs to remember and be inspired by the long history of Black-Asian solidarity, political protest, and activism, which predates the more recent model minority period. I would like to see more stories about activists like Yuri Kochiyama, who was a comrade of Malcom X and held him as he lay dying. In fact, maybe I’ll write that play myself!
And finally, what would your takeaway be, then, for younger, aspiring universal Asians and how important do you believe it to be for an individual to be engaged in their cultural and racial identity and why or why not?
I think being engaged in one’s identity is simply part of what it means to be human. Cultural and racial identity is one critical aspect of that search, and it will mean more to some than others. But, to ignore it completely is to give in to the lie that universality means cutting off a part of yourself and your history. The more specific our explorations, the more universal we will become.
Cover photo credit: Gregory Costanza