Playwright's career is family-focused / by R. Sheth

February 25, 2007
By Mary Houlihan
Chicago Sun-Times Staff Reporter

The roots of David Henry Hwang's 1997 drama Golden Child go back to when the playwright was a precocious 10-year-old. His maternal grandmother, who knew all the family history, had fallen ill and the forward-thinking youngster made it his mission to record those stories before they were gone forever.

The Los Angeles-born Hwang convinced his parents to let him spend the summer with his grandmother in the Philippines, where he compiled an oral history of his ancestors. The result was a 90-page "non-fiction novel" he distributed to family members who "gave it very good reviews."

Oddly enough, it was the only piece of writing Hwang (M. Butterfly) did before beginning to write in earnest as an undergraduate at Stanford University .

"It's interesting to me in retrospect that the one thing I chose to write had something to do with putting myself and my family in context within a history," Hwang said in a conversation from his Brooklyn apartment. "Obviously, it's been the focus of the work I've done as a grown-up."

In the mid-'90s, Hwang became a parent and began thinking about those old family stories as the basis for a play: "I was sort of collaborating with my younger self."

The result was Golden Child, a bittersweet memory piece that makes its Midwest debut at Silk Road Theatre. It tells the story of a conflicted modern-day man, Andrew Kwong; in a dream he is visited by his grandmother, who unfolds the family history.

Andrew is transported back to 1918, where he encounters his great-grandfather, Tieng-Bin, a well-traveled, wealthy merchant who has three wives. When he returns from a trip to the Philippines with a British missionary, he and the reluctant wives are converted to Christianity. It is a family caught between Christianity and Confucianism, tradition and modernity.

"David does a fine job of creating cultural context" said Jamil Khoury, Silk Road artistic director. "It's a complex but very accessible play that offers a real sense of Chinese culture that we can learn from."

The basic plot points are consistent with the stories Hwang heard from his grandmother; Christianity has been a major influence on generations of the family.

Hwang was among the first to rebel when, in his early 20s, he rejected his fundamentalist Christian upbringing. He struggled for many years to overcome what he calls "its more harmful legacies." Therapy came in the form of three plays: Family Devotions, Rich Relations and, finally, Golden Child.

"In the first two plays, I pretty much skewer the religion," Hwang, 49, said. "Golden Child is my attempt to strike a balance, to recognize that Tieng-Bin's decision has both altruistic and selfish motivations, both positive and negative consequences."

Tradition, change and East-West relations are themes that haunt Hwang's plays. His Broadway hit M. Butterfly was the first play by an Asian-American to be nominated for and to win a Tony Award; it continues to be his signature work. Inspired by a newspaper story about a French diplomat in love with a Chinese opera star, it launched the career of the then 30-year-old playwright into the stratosphere.

"I think all American playwrights end up with a play that sticks with them," Hwang said. "And fortunately M. Butterfly is a work that I really like, so it doesn't bother me that that's the one hung around my neck."

But Hwang freely admits it was a hard act to follow. His next play, Face Value, closed in previews on Broadway. M. Butterfly had created a "bubble of expectations" which was hard to deal with. Hwang says he was actually relieved when Face Value flopped.

"I burst that bubble, and then I could get back to being a playwright again," he said. Hwang comes from a family with "no history of theater." Hwang's pianist mother, Dorothy, was born in the Philippines after her family moved there from China . She came to the States in 1952 to study piano at the University of Southern California , where she met Hwang's Shanghai-born father, Henry, a business student who would later help found the Far East National Bank. When they decided to marry, he converted to Christianity.

At Stanford, Hwang majored in English literature, but after seeing a few plays he thought he'd try his hand at playwriting. Right out of college, his first play, FOB (fresh off the boat), was chosen for the O'Neill Playwright's Conference and picked up by Joseph Papp's Public Theater, where it was staged in 1981.

"I think I'm a good writer," Hwang said. "But, to be honest, I also got a lot of lucky breaks right out of the starting gate."

Today, Hwang lives in Brooklyn with his actress wife Kathryn Layng and their two children, Noah, 11, and Eva, 6. Between plays and screenplays (Possession, Golden Gate), he has written the book for musical productions of Flower Drum Song and Disney's Tarzan, as well as the libretto for several operas the most recent being an adaptation of the 1986 David Cronenberg movie The Fly, which will premiere next year at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

But Hwang says he is most comfortable calling himself an Asian-American playwright. His newest play Yellow Face, the first since Golden Child, will debut this year at Los Angeles ' Mark Taper Forum.

"A play is still the thing that's most my own," Hwang explained. "In the other mediums, I'm serving someone else's vision and that can be fun. But when I get back to my own work I seem to be attracted to the same plot of ground. It's closest to myself and in a way that's scarier when everyone is serving my vision."

mhoulihan@suntimes.com