March 7, 2007
By Christopher Piatt
Playwright David Henry Hwang’s gender-bent geisha drama M. Butterfly picked up the Tony for best play in 1988, making him the first Asian-American to be so christened. In the subsequent years, the career of the two-time Pulitzer finalist has seen ups and downs on both Broadway and in the nonprofit theater, with substantial surprises in both. This week his last Broadway straight play, 1998’s short-lived China-set Golden Child, finally gets its Midwest premiere at Silk Road Theatre Project. We asked him about that, and his in-between trysts with a certain mouse.
Your most recent Broadway project was Tarzan, and before that Aida. How did Disney find you?
After Lion King happened, I was interested in the Mulan story. I always have been, actually. Disney had done an animated Mulan so I had approached them about the possibility of doing a staged Mulan, and they weren’t interested in that, but then they asked me if I wanted to work on Aida. I remember initially kind of struggling with that. And then I kind of felt, well, that this is a journey that if I don’t take I’ll always kind of be curious what would have happened. And also there’s something nice about Disney, this sort of corporate colossus, that wasn’t typing me by race. There wasn’t a feeling like I could only work on Asian projects.
Do you think that ethnic tokenism is still thriving in nonprofit, non-Disney theater?
First of all, tokenism at one point was an advance. Because you had no plays with other than, you know, white characters in them. Like many things, one generation’s advance turns into another generation’s stagnation. Yes, a lot of my black colleagues complain about February. That’s when the black play gets scheduled. On the other hand, there is a greater recognition that an American play doesn’t need to look like a particular thing in terms of the race of its characters and certainly in terms of the sexual orientation.
Do you think there’s a reason that there aren’t more theater critics or even cultural critics of color?
There probably is a reason. I do think that it’s a big issue, because we talk a lot about diversity in terms of the acting pool and in terms of the plays themselves, but we don’t talk that much about diversity: (a) within the critical pool and (b) in terms of theater administration.
The first contact any ticket buyer has with a play is reading the review.
Yeah, and the system in New York is silly. Ever since The New York Times eliminated their Sunday critic, you only have this one voice. And it’s not like in London , where people tend to gravitate towards the critic they like; it’s just everybody believes in whoever happens to have the [daily Times] gig. And it’s not a good system but, as they say in The Godfather, “This is the life we chose.”
Regarding administration, any insights?
I think those are obviously really important areas in determining what gets produced, what gets through to an audience, what people go to see, and the point of view is very kind of monocultural. It’s good for the theater because, when it comes to things like marketing, it’s good to have somebody who knows that if you want to try to get more of an African-American audience, it helps to go to the churches. That sort of thing. There’s a million other variations like that. Theaters need to grow their audiences. They know they need to grow their audiences. They try to do so but they’re dealing with an economy that is multicultural and they’re, to a large extent, not. And even most ruthless industries know this.
Do you feel like Golden Child got a fair run on Broadway?
It was a short run, so I don’t think it got a fair run by definition. I don’t know. It’s hard to kind of go back and pick those things apart. I think Golden Child is a really strong play and certainly there are, fortunately, a lot of critics who felt the same way. But not the head critic of The New York Times, so we didn’t last long on Broadway. And that’s the roll of the dice.