A Golden Child on the Silk Road / by R. Sheth

March 16, 2007
By Kerry Reid

He's a Tony-winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright who has also written librettos for projects ranging from Philip Glass operas to Disney musical behemoths such as Aida and Tarzan (and he even co-wrote a song with Prince). Yet it's taken 10 years for his last non-musical Broadway show to reach Chicago audiences – and it probably wouldn't have happened without Silk Road Theatre Project.

David Henry Hwang's career as a playwright goes back to his undergraduate days at Stanford University , where he wrote FOB (fresh off the boat), a piece that eventually nabbed an Obie Award and put him on the front lines of emerging American playwrights. It also found him grouped with other writers examining the immigrant Asian-American experience, such as Philip Kan Gotanda and Maxine Hong Kingston. Like Kingston, Hwang also came under fire from fellow Asian writers (Frank Chin, for one) for using stereotypes of Asian immigrants in order to deconstruct those stereotypes. He recalls an early review of FOB that claimed the play "set Asian Americans back 20 years."

Hwang achieved perhaps his greatest critical acclaim to date with 1988's Tony-winning M. Butterfly, loosely based on the real story of a French diplomat who had a decades-long affair with a Chinese actor and spy – a man the diplomat claimed he always thought was a woman. That play has been produced all over the world and was turned into a 1993 film scripted by Hwang that starred Jeremy Irons and John Lone. It also drew heated criticism from some Asian activists who, according to Hwang, accused him of "inauthentic uses of Asian mythology. They felt it reinforced the emasculation of Asian men by white culture." Hwang also says that he has been accused of creating "Orientalia for the intelligentsia."

In Golden Child, Hwang drew on the story of his maternal grandmother, a native of China who grew up in the Philippines with a merchant father who converted to Christianity and rejected Chinese traditions such as polygamy and foot binding. The play provides a wistful and sometimes-funny portrait of a traditional society in flux and how those sea changes affect the three wives and the daughter of Tieng-Bin, the merchant. Golden Child was nominated for a Tony in 1998 (and won the Obie for the year before). But it's never broken into the regional theatre market since that Broadway run. According to Hwang, Seattle Rep remains the only non-multicultural theatre to produce the work since Broadway.

Which may explain why he's so happy to see it hitting the boards under Stuart Carden's direction for Silk Road at the company's downtown digs in the Chicago Temple. Since its creation in 2003, Silk Road, under the leadership of artistic director Jamil Khoury and executive director Malik Gillani, who are also life partners, has focused on producing plays from the historic "Silk Road," an ancient trade route that wound through Asia to Mediterranean seaports.

"I found that organizing metaphor a really interesting one, and I'd heard about their work," says Hwang.

For his part, Khoury admits, "I had this sense, up until this experience, that David Henry Hwang was this mainstream, large, iconic figure in the Asian theatre community and would be out of reach for us. Well, I was wrong."

On the afternoon I interviewed him, Hwang had just arrived for the first previews of Golden Child and was also ready to hit the stage at the Cultural Center later in the evening for an interview with Lucia Mauro, to be followed the next day with a talk for students at Columbia College Chicago. At 49, the New York resident still exudes enthusiasm for his craft in all its forms, though he also admits to some fears for the emerging generation of playwrights.

Hwang's earliest exposure to theatre came about thanks to Los Angeles's venerable Asian theatre company, East-West Players. His mother was a pianist who occasionally played for shows there, and Hwang himself started out studying jazz violin until writing took over. He went to Yale School of Drama after graduating from Stanford. But he credits companies like East-West, San Francisco's Asian American Theatre Company, and now Silk Road with keeping the voices of Asian writers alive.

"There is an analogy between the marginalization of ethnic-specific companies and those who work in the avant-garde," maintains Hwang, who serves as a playwright advisor at New York's Lark Play Development Center . "There's a diminution of work that is not able to make money and less support for the experimental in theatre."

So why hasn't Golden Child been as widely produced in regional houses post-Broadway as, say, August Wilson's plays? According to Hwang, the biggest reason cited by regional producers is, "We can't cast it." And certainly, finding a cast that is almost entirely Asian can be a challenge in many markets. Khoury says that Silk Road, which operates on an annual budget of $300,000, went Equity with this production. "The Asian acting pool in Chicago is a relatively small pool. The Middle Eastern acting pool is even smaller. We will not dismiss something because of the casting challenge."

Silk Road had originally hoped to cast Joseph Foronda, who has appeared in the national tour of Miss Saigon and in last season's Chicago Children's Theatre production of A Year With Frog and Toad, among many other credits, as Tieng-Bin, but when he accepted a role in Drury Lane Oakbrook's production of The King and I, the company turned to Vic Chao. The Los Angeles-based Chao has a long list of film and television projects on his resume, but he also has family in Chicago and, according to Carden, "He heard about the auditions and contacted us and said, 'I will relocate.'" The rest of the cast, according to Carden, "are all phenomenal actors. They do have a relatively small amount of experience. And that's another part of our mission. Actors who have been playing secondary characters in larger theatres get to carry a primary throughline."

Hwang waded into the casting controversy waters by taking the side of Actors' Equity in the union's protests over the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. That experience partly colors (no pun intended) his newest play, Yellow Face, a mock documentary play in which a writer called "DHH" casts a white actor as an Asian in his latest work.

Playwrights who incite controversy aren't new for Silk Road. Their world premiere presentation in 2005 of Egyptian-American writer Yussef El Guindi's Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, about a Muslim immigrant family with a gay son, a son questioning his faith, and a daughter torn between traditional mores and her own desires was criticized by some groups within the Muslim American community. (In fact, a Los Angeles theatre company declined to produce the play after encountering opposition from local Muslim groups.)

"That was such a difficult fight," says Khoury. "We didn't back down. For a lot of newer communities in this country, the notion is that art should celebrate the community and reflect the status quo, that art doesn't question or challenge. That's an idea that is alien to us. In wanting to hold up mirrors to the communities that we want to represent, there will be resistance. It's a process of maturation and a process of becoming American."

In addition to Aida and Tarzan, Hwang wrote a new libretto for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, which opened on Broadway in 2002 to mixed reviews but still managed to win a Tony nomination. The world of the big-budget Broadway musical offers the one-time violinist more than just a chance to re-engage with the language of music. He says he originally accepted the job of scripting Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida out of curiosity. "I wondered, 'What would this journey be like?'" says Hwang. "Disney didn't pigeonhole me as an Asian playwright. I was also able to learn a lot about the demands of putting on huge shows."

But for those playwrights without Disneyesque budgets at their disposal, developing work can be a hard slog. Hwang points out that the page-to-stage journey for FOB, from first draft to first production, took only 15 months. "I think it's a lot harder for young playwrights now," he says. "Theatre has become so professionalized. Development programs often use staged readings not as a sign of commitment to a project, but as a tryout. So there is a tendency on the part of writers to write toward readings."

Silk Road considers itself primarily a playwright's theatre, and they do present a full roster of readings every year in addition to two full productions. Says Khoury of their Al-Kasida reading series (the title comes from the Arabic phrase for "the ode"), "It's a way of building relationships with the playwrights we're interested in. We bring them here for the readings. We've done 20 or 21 to date, and they've been a wonderful way to engage a lot of actors and directors in town."

Khoury hopes that having a writer of Hwang's stature involved with the company will help Silk Road expand their audience base. "The white audience we're talking about is mostly an upper-middle-class audience that occupies a worldly niche. And then we're tapping into immigrant-based communities that don't have a tradition of engaging American plays. That doesn't mean they're not seeing other cultural performances. But the people who came to see Yussef El Guindi's work may not come to this one."

For his part, despite the higher profile and larger financial rewards offered by Disney, Hwang has no intention of abandoning work like Golden Child.

"Those are the personal, original works," he notes. Hwang attended the first previews and, says Carden, "He has been a lesson in professionalism and generosity." Hwang also seemed to enjoy what he saw. "He hadn't seen the play since it closed on Broadway," Carden says. "After the first preview, it was such a fantastic moment for myself and the cast because he said, 'This is a fun play.'"