Silk Road's poetic principle thrills a principal playwright / by R. Sheth

March 9, 2007
By Chris Jones
Tribune theater critic

The pre-eminent Asian-American playwright was in town last week to help a fledgling, non-Equity Chicago company work on one of his plays.

This tells you something useful about both the writer and the theater he was trying to help.

The unusually willing David Henry Hwang-best known as the author of M. Butterfly but also a writer of such Disney musicals as Tarzan and Aida-was here to help the ambitious Silk Road Theatre Project produce his play Golden Child, which opens on Friday in the group's downtown theater in the basement of the Chicago Temple. It will be the Chicago premiere of a biographical play that explores the influence of Western culture on a traditional Asian family, modeled on Hwang's own relatives.

Hwang, a modest fellow but a major figure in the contemporary American theater nonetheless, says he showed up in Chicago mostly because he likes what Silk Road has set out to achieve.

"I think their mission is quite beautiful," Hwang, 50, said over lunch last week. "I've always been interested in the blurring of dichotomies. And I don't know of any other multi-cultural theater anywhere in the country that's organized around such a poetic principle."

The poetic principle that intrigues Hwang is the use of the ancient concept of history's Silk Road -the 5,000-mile trade route that traversed continents and helped form the foundations of the modern world-as kind of multi-ethnic marker. It's not that unusual to find an African-American theater or an Asian-American theater. But very few troupes have a mission that includes works from and about, say, Iran , Iraq , China and Italy . That's the way Silk Road sees its world.

"Most theaters either have no particular mandate for multiculturalism or they represent one single ethnicity," Hwang said. "It's great that Chicago has a theater doing what used to be called 'ethnic' work also doing work with a European foundation. The Silk Road is a visionary metaphor."

Malik Gillani, Silk Road 's executive director, likes the sound of that. "He's been so warm and generous with us," Gillani said of Hwang.

No one has written more about cross-cultural fertilization than Hwang. His early plays such as M. Butterfly looked at the cycle of need and domination between west and east. In that famous drama, the East-all of the East, really-is depicted as an alluring female that can both charm and be brutalized by the masculine West.

Hwang-who used to be trotted out whenever a media outlet needed an Asian-American, any Asian-American-says the world has moved on from the days of M. Butterfly, an era when he was routinely expected to proffer an opinion on, say, the current machinations of the Chinese government.

"Those discreet boundaries we used to know are no longer that relevant," he said. "A lot of recent immigrants don't associate with a pan-Asian identity at all. They don't ponder what it means to be an Asian-American. The community has become so diverse within itself-so younger writers don't treat the idea of being Asian as the answer to the question of identity."

Like a lot of playwrights, Hwang divides his time between projects in which he has a deep, personal investment-and projects that pay the bills. In the case of his big musicals, he knows the drill.

"In those sorts of projects, I feel like it is my job to serve someone else's vision," Hwang said. "My level of investment in my plays is the greatest."

All that said, Hwang is penning a musical that might just combine the two. A concept being developed by the Chicago-based production company Elephant Eye Theatricals, it's a musical based on the life story of Bruce Lee, the martial arts superstar who emerged from Hong Kong . The show is expected on Broadway in 2008 or 2009. David Bowie was initially interested in writing the music, but that's not now happening. Still, Hwang is excited.

"Lee came to fame at a fascinating time," Hwang said, "just as things were starting to change and open up. He was the first real Chinese hero you saw in Western culture."

Correction: The above feature story identifies Silk Road Theatre Project as a non-Equity theatre. Silk Road Theatre Project became a member of the Actor’s Equity Association in January, 2007.