Chinglish Lessons: The playwright on the Chicago summer of David Henry Hwang / by R. Sheth

June 15, 2011
By Dennis Polkow

Although his diverse career spans more than thirty years and has encompassed television, movies, performance art, opera and musicals, 53-year old playwright and Los Angeles native David Henry Hwang is best known for his 1988 Tony Award-winning Broadway play “M. Butterfly” and as the preeminent voice of the Asian-American experience. His words both on and off the page tend to attract controversy, including his role in the protest of the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in “Miss Saigon.” That incident sparked his 1993 play “Face Value” which closed on Broadway before it was out of previews, but was somewhat reincarnated as the successful 2007 “Yellow Face,” a play which is receiving its Chicago premiere by the Silk Road Theatre Project this summer—where Hwang has collaborated previously—along with two other Hwang works: the world premiere of “Chinglish” at Goodman Theatre, and the first revival in two decades of an early work from 1981, “Family Devotions” at Halcyon Theatre. On a lunch break from Chinglish rehearsals at Goodman Theatre, which has reunited Hwang with his collaborator on the book for Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida,” Robert Falls, we walked around the downtown theater district discussing these works and what inspired them before landing at a sandwich shop. We would likely still be there if an SOS hadn’t been sent out that he was needed back for a run-through.

Why did you want to have the world premiere of “Chinglish” in Chicago? 
I always wanted to have more of a presence here. It’s arguably the most vital theater town in the country in terms of energy and people doing things for good and the right reasons. I got to know the community and the community got to know me through my working with Silk Road [Theatre Project] on a couple of projects. When I wrote “Chinglish” and finished it off, I thought, “Where do I want to start this show? And I thought, “This is a play that could really work in Chicago.” So I sent it to Bob [Falls] and he was immediately responsive. He read it really quickly and committed to doing it. I finished the first draft in January of 2010, and I sent it to him in February, so it all happened pretty quick. Malik [Gillani] and Jamil [Khoury] were already planning to do “Yellow Face” at Silk Road this season anyway, and I think the decision was made to have them happen at roughly the same time. And then Halcyon came in and decided to do “Family Devotions” this summer too, so that’s kind of how it all came together.

The summer of David Henry Hwang, as it is being called here. Did you know Bob before working with him on “Aida?” 
We were on various theater things together. We were both on the board of Theatre Communications Group at the same time. So we knew each other socially, but not otherwise. I had seen his work, but we had never worked together before we were asked to collaborate on “Aida,” which was our only experience of working together. “Aida” was a show that Disney had been working on previously. They did a version in Atlanta that I guess didn’t go so well.

It was supposed to be a cartoon originally? 
If you go all the way back, before my time with it, it started with the Leontyne Price book and then I think Elton [John] and Tim [Rice] thought about it as a possible movie and then they—or somebody—wanted to do it as a stage thing. They had done “Lion King,” but maybe only the movie at that point. I can’t remember. After Atlanta, they brought in a new team that included Bob and, at that point, I was brought in to work on the book, and that’s how we ended up doing it.

Was there talk even then about doing something at Goodman? 
Not really, I think at the time we were just really trying to get that show on. But yeah, there was the hope I think in both of our minds that we would do something together again, but we weren’t sure what that would be.

You are often thought of as the voice of the Asian-American experience. But you have done a lot of eclectic things, as your collaboration on “Aida” indicates. 
Yeah, it’s been a pretty varied career. I certainly started out writing from an Asian-American perspective and many have been Asian-American plays that are written by an Asian-American. But the subject matter is not necessarily Asian-American. “M Butterfly” is not really an Asian-American play. “Chinglish” is not really an Asian-American play. “Yellow Face” is. “Family Devotions” is.

Family Devotions” is an early work? 
As far as I know, that play has not been done anyplace since 1991. That’s a play I wrote when I was 23. It premiered when I was 24 in 1981 and then there was a production in San Francisco in 1991 but I haven’t heard of it being done since then. It will be interesting to see it. I don’t really remember that much about it. I’m very curious to come back and see it. “Yellow Face” and “Chinglish” are my most recent plays and “Family Devotions” goes all the way back to my early twenties, so nothing middle period, so to speak.

Is there something that you would see as a theme running through those three plays? 
The theme of transformation that goes through a lot of my work, the fluidity of identity. You think you’re one person, and you get put in another context, and you become somebody else. Each of these plays has that to some extent: “Family Devotions” is a relative from the People’s Republic of China coming to visit the Americanized relatives and they try to convert him to Christianity. “Yellow Face” is the journey of the doppelganger character, my doppelganger “DHH,” and how he transforms from one who is actually interested in Asian-American things to someone who is interested in keeping up an image of being an Asian-American role model. In “Chinglish, there are certainly all of these changes that take place with Daniel or the American character, as a result of his being put in an environment where either he literally can’t understand what people are saying, or even when they are talking about the same concepts, they might as well in certain cases be using a different language because the concepts are so different. Things like love, business, status. We think of love as being very innate but it is actually very socially conditioned according to cultural context. This idea of people changing in different social contexts and specifically as it relates to East and West runs through these works.

As the voice of Asian-American experience, it is curious how little we actually know about your pre-playwrighting life. We know you grew up in California and in an evangelical household. 
It was in San Gabriel, which is near Pasadena. Northeast suburbs of Los Angeles.

Your parents were missionaries? 
No, but my mother’s side of the family was and is very religious which is a theme that runs through “Family Devotions” and “Golden Child.” My great grandfather was converted to Christianity in the twenties in China which is what “Golden Child” is about. He’s got these three wives and he’s got to decide what to do with his three wives once he gets converted to Christianity. My mother was a pianist and my father was a banker. My father is a very prominent character in “Yellow Face” so you can learn about my father in the play. “Yellow Face” is sort of a staged mockumentary, an unreliable memoir about me. It begins and ends with two fairly public incidents: the first being the protesting against the casting of Jonathan Pryce in “Miss Saigon,” and the one at the end being the accusations against my father in the late nineties by the New York Times that he laundered money for China. So, when I started writing that play, I thought that those two events were somehow related. To some extent, the play is an attempt to pull all of that together.

Do you think your fame as a playwright made your father an easier target for them? 
Not really, no. I think that the play “Yellow Face” posits that we were in a period during the late nineties when the US was gearing up to make China its next enemy. So you have a bunch of scandals. You had the Al Gore thing [the 1996 United States campaign finance controversy known as "Chinagate"], you may recall, my dad was sort of caught up in all of that. And then 9/11 happened and the country was like, “Oh, our enemy is over there.” It will be interesting to see what happens in the rest of the century in terms of US-China relations.

It’s the Century of China, we keep hearing. 
Right. And that to some extent, “Chinglish” is my attempt to begin exploring how I feel about the rise of China, and US-China relations.

It has to be very odd. 
It is, because over the course of just my little lifetime, the image of China in this country has gone 180 degrees. I remember when Chinese people were sort of seen as poor, uneducated menial laborers: cooks, waiters, laundrymen. And now Chinese are seen as having too much money, too much power and raise the curve in your math class.

And holding our debts, making possible our going after other Asian bogeyman. 
Absolutely. The way that Asian-Americans are regarded has always been a function of America’s relationship with the root cultures. When I was a kid, we were always at war with one Asian nation after another. I was born right after Korea, then there was the Cold War, fear of China, then there was Vietnam. We were always at war with some East Asian nation. Then in the eighties, it’s hard to believe now, we were all worried about Japan taking over the world. So, to some extent historically there is this atypical window in the last ten years or so where China has been sort of affectionately regarded, though with a lot of trepidation.

"Chinglish" cast members Jennifer Lim and James Waterston take down a rewrite from the playwright/Photo: Eric Y. Exit.

Asian-Americans who I know who grew up in California at the same time that you did seem to have bracketed that side of themselves completely. Was there some experience that you had that made you more in tune with this aspect of yourself? 
I wonder about that too, because that is true. The thing that changed me in that regard was writing. I wanted to be a playwright. I had no particular intention of writing about East-West things, Asian-American things. But I took a playwriting workshop the summer before my senior year in college with Sam Shepard, [María] Irene Fornés, Murray Mednick in Padua Hills. Murray Mednick set it up as part of where he was teaching, which was the University of La Verne, way out east of LA. At that point, Sam had just won the Pulitzer for “Buried Child” but he wasn’t a movie star yet. I think he may have done the Terrence Malick movie, but that was about it. It got to be harder to get him to do stuff later on, because he got busier. So, they taught us to write more from our unconscious, that is not censor yourself, and gave us lots of exercises to try to be as directly from the unconscious as possible. And then I just found that this stuff appeared on the page, this stuff about East-West issues, about China, about immigration, assimilation, all this kind of stuff.

Were you surprised? 
I was. So clearly, some part of me was very interested in this. But in my conscious mind, I kind of blocked it, I hadn’t acknowledged it. Writing unlocked that for me. So in a way, you can say that, yes, in a literal sense, the artist creates the work but it is also true at least in my case, that the work recreated me, recreated the artist. That is what I discovered through writing and that has determined the course of much of my life.

As a kid, it’s not like you were having this as a conscious experience. 
Totally not. I was totally not interested in being Asian. I was just like everybody else. I didn’t think it was a very big deal.

Were you in an area where there were a lot of Asian-Americans? 
Interestingly, San Gabriel, where I grew up, now is like the suburban Chinatown. Not just San Gabriel, but the cities around it as well. But when I was a kid, it was mostly white and Latino with smatterings of Asians. Now when I go back home, all of the Mexican restaurants are Chinese restaurants. It’s really interesting. I don’t recognize the place.

None of us like to see where we grew up change too much. 
It’s ironic that it was changed by people who look like me! My story is that I grow up not wanting to think about this stuff, but that the writing changed that. The writing changed me.

Some element of repression there? 
Totally. It was totally repressed. Because otherwise it wouldn’t have come out in my writing when I started doing these exercises with Sam and stuff. I feel like once I started writing about this stuff, I went through a lot of phases. At first, there was my discovery of this subject matter which coincided with the rise of a larger theatrical multiculturalism. My interest began to expand. And then it was like, do I really want to be put in a cubbyhole of being an Asian-American writer? I still have a lot of pull and tug about that. But the reality is, is that I still come back to a lot of these East-West subjects.

You don’t find that you’re forcing that because that is what has come to be expected of you? 
No, because if anything, if I was going to try to force it, I would try to force myself to do something else. But I continue to be attracted to it. So it feels natural to me. This is what excites me and what interests me still. I think what has evolved, particularly post “Yellow Face,” is that I don’t know that I am particularly interested in multiculturalism anymore, you know, Asian-American identity issues, identity politics, political movements that came out of the seventies.

Which you are seen as a primary spokesman for, as you know. 
Right, I’m a big part of that, and “Yellow Face” DHH is kind of the comic figure in the show. I could have made fun of a lot of multicultural figures in the show, but it was easier to make fun of myself. “Yellow Face” is my statement on the state of multiculturalism over the last thirty years. What I now seem to be more interested in is internationalism as the new multiculturalism. Multiculturalism posits that different groups see the world differently. But I feel that it’s not enough anymore to just look at that within our own borders. Let’s look at these issues as they apply to the whole world. “Chinglish” certainly falls into the internationalist category as does “M. Butterfly,” so it’s not a totally new thread for me, but it seems to be the thread that I am more focused on at this moment. And most of the things that I am interested in doing, projects that are in various stages of—I hate the word development, but—development, are more international. I’m less interested in the Asian-American thing at the moment. Thirty years ago when we were talking about Asian-American identity, identity politics, that was all fresh and exciting. And now it’s like, we’ve already done that. And I am not that interested in it anymore. Been there, did that.

Do you find it odd though that the “post-race” discussion has become one of racism still existing, even if not as pronounced as it once was, vs. a virtual denial that racism still exists? 
Absolutely. We’re at a point where you have to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time: yeah, race is a construct, and ultimately we all want a post-race society. But racism is going to still happen and when it does, you have to gear up and fight that stuff. And in some sense, these are two oppositional notions that you have to hold onto at the same time.

Racism happens vs. race doesn’t exist. The passionate reaction to Barack Obama is a great example of the dilemma. 
It is, it’s a great example of that. Many of us perceive that contradiction as much in our face everyday as it could possibly be. You know, what’s interesting is that I know Chicago a little, mainly from the time here with “Aida,” but also the Silk Road stuff, but oddly enough, I’m pretty familiar with Rockford because my wife is from Rockford. So, for the last twenty-two years, I’ve been going to Rockford at least once or twice a year. There’s the stereotype about Midwesterners that the Midwest is sort of white and Swedish and Scandinavian, Germanic. It’s really not been true for a long time. Certainly in Chicago, but even in the rest of the Midwest. So, I feel that one of the things that Malik and Jamil did with Silk Road, was just to put that idea out there. I don’t think it’s unrelated to the fact that I have these three productions here now. Or that Chay Yew, a playwright and director of Singaporean descent, has been hired to head up Victory Gardens, the first Asian to head up a major theater in America. It’s not that people were necessarily resistant to it and it is a reflection of the fact that Chicago isn’t, and hasn’t been, merely white and black. Chicago has been much more diverse for a long time.

How did you meet a wife from Rockford, recently singled out for its unusually high crime rate for a town its size? 
I don’t feel that when I go there, but it is one of the much more segregated cities imaginable. It’s another culture. That’s why for me, Rockford is very exotic. It’s that Norman Rockwell thing that when I was growing up I thought, “That’s something I will never be a part of.” She was an actress and we met in “M. Butterfly.” She did a TV show for four years and we started dating. We go at least for Thanksgiving every year. And they have cabins in Wisconsin, so in the summer we go up to Wisconsin.

There’s a play there. 
There is a play there! Leah, a character in this show, has a Midwestern influence. In the 1950s and sixties, Rockford was the middle of the middle. It was the city that they would test products in. And then they lost some of their industrial base and things got more challenging. But I’m more interested right now in how countries relate to one another and how these issues apply on a global basis as opposed to just looking at them within our own borders.

The curious thing about China then vs. now is that during the Cold War, it was perceived as a more dangerous potential enemy than the Soviet Union because it was the enemy that America didn’t know. 
Nobody knew anything about China, as you say, and nobody really had much contact with Chinese Americans. In 1965, when East West Players was founded, which is the nation’s oldest Asian-American theater, in LA, the Asian population of the US was 0.5 percent. Most recently in 2007, it’s about five percent. That’s a huge jump. The average American not only knew nothing about China, but didn’t actually know anyone of Asian descent. So there was an ignorance gap. One of the huge stories of the twenty-first century is how the US-China relationship will evolve. And just by sheer coincidence, I happen to be Chinese, but I don’t speak the language much, and there are a lot of things about China that I don’t know. But I feel that growing up with immigrant parents, there are some things that I just kind of understand in my bones. And the rest that I don’t know I will not understand until I try to parcel it out.

And there’s the strange thing of China now being interested in Broadway-style shows. And China being China, wanted to create their own Broadway-style show that will one day make it to Broadway, our Broadway, which is kind of wonderful and wacky. And I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person that has even written a Broadway show, so people ended up wanting to meet me over there. So, I started to have the kind of meetings like the kind that are in “Chinglish.” The first time was in the early nineties, we went over to see where my father grew up with my father. Then I started going over there more regularly over the last four or five years, starting about 2006. It’s amazing. It’s very exciting to be there. Shanghai is an amazing city. I feel like I happen to be sitting on and interested in one of the big subjects of the rest of the century, US-China relations.

You find that Chinese interest in us matches American interest in China? 
They’re really interested in us. Some of it is competitive, it takes many forms. But what is fascinating to me and what is reflected in “Chinglish” is that we are at this particular window of time when both countries are very interested in one another and neither knows very much about the other. So, you end up having people over here who go over there, “I’m really great, I’ve done amazing things in the US,” to make themselves out to be very important, much more important than they are in the US. And people over there believe it, because they don’t know better, and vice-versa.

The Chinese have learned that one vital step in becoming a superpower is to finance other countries, including us. In some respects, they have learned capitalism better than we have. 
Interestingly enough, it is not a free-market capitalism. What does that all mean? What does that say about capitalism? So many fascinating questions about it.

Capitalism thriving in China shows that it is not as related to freedom as we thought. 
Exactly. Some of the first exchanges in “Chinglish” are about this very point. Do you need a stable justice system to economically grow? No, clearly not. People are interested in this right now so I am kind of fortunate that way.

Luck or fate along with timing? 
You’re quite right. That I started writing about Chinese-American things at a moment when nobody anticipated what China would become was indeed fortunate. “FOB,” my first play, was done in 1980. China had just become opened up to the West.

With this shift from multiculturalism to internationalism in your work, do you already see where that might go? Is internationalism likely to be as rich a well for you as multiculturalism has been? 
One never knows for sure. I went through a ten-year period when I did not write an original full-length play. From 1998, when “Golden Child” was on Broadway, until 2007, when “Yellow Face” opened in NY and LA, I did not do a full-length work of my own. I did opera, I did musicals, I did movies, I did a lot of things. In general, I have only really written plays when I have had something to say. And I feel very energized at the moment, to write a bunch of plays. I’m working on a piece called the “Daughter of Shanghai,” which is based on the life of the actress Tsai Chin, who is still alive. She is in her seventies and will be part of it, but it’s not a one-woman show. She has a life that has encompassed pre-revolutionary China. Her father was arguably the greatest Peking Opera actor of the first half of the twentieth century, so she grew up in Bohemian Shanghai. Then she went to RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and then she became the original Suzie Wong on the West End. Then she came to the States, her parents were killed during the Cultural Revolution, and eventually she became the first Western stage expert invited back to China to teach after the Cultural Revolution, which is when she found out what happened to her parents. So, an international story that actually takes place on three continents.

Did the failure of “Face Value” on Broadway in part influence the hiatus from doing your own original full-length works for so long? 
There is a lot of value to failures. And there are bad things that come about from successes. “Face Value” was indeed this huge embarrassing flop. For fifteen years, I held onto the fact that I thought that the idea of doing a comedy of mistaken racial identity was a good idea, but I couldn’t figure out how to pursue it. Finally, the idea of doing it as a mockumentary about myself in “Yellow Face.”

Are you allowing revivals of “Face Value? 
No, I don’t think that play is ready for a revival. Maybe if someone were interested, we could have a reading and see. I would be curious to hear it. I failed, and it was my fault, I didn’t get it right. So I don’t feel that the play is ready to be produced as is. In some sense, “Yellow Face” is the reincarnation of “Face Value.”

Do you feel any differently, all these years later, about your protest of a white actor being cast as the Asian lead in “Miss Saigon? 
You know, there are two issues there, employment, and aesthetic. The employment issue is quite clear: we are still not at a point where we would cast James Earl Jones as George Washington and as long as that is the case and race still matters in theater, if we don’t cast minorities in minority roles, than what parts are they going to play?

The aesthetic issue, like all aesthetic issues, is more complicated. Take race out of it. Think of “Dancing at Lughnasa” where you had a cast from Ireland that came to do this play, set in Ireland, on Broadway and it did really well. So well, that the Irish cast visas ran out and they went back to Ireland and they recast the show with American actors. Some people think that the Irish cast was better. So, if that’s the case, it is sometimes true that if you cast actors that have more experience in the stories that they’re portraying, and whose own experience is closer to the experience that they are portraying, maybe you’re going to get a better production. But I can also see where there are aesthetic reasons why there are interesting reasons to go against that sometimes, too. Ultimately, artistic freedom trumps everything. Producers and writers have the right to cast whoever they want. But I also believe that people who don’t like their decisions have the right to complain as loudly as they want as well.

Face Value” was my attempt to respond to all of this. “Yellow Face” was fifteen years later and dealt with the complexity and nuances of what does it mean to “play” a race? Do we play a race in life? Can an Asian person be in yellow face, aka the DHH character becomes so attached to his identity as an Asian-American role model that to some extent, he is performing at being an Asian-American, if you see what I mean. Mix of those issues. In any case, after this work culminating my thoughts on this issue, I have begun a new chapter exploring internationalism and that’s where I want to concentrate my energy now.

Is “Chinglish,” your first chapter in this new focus on internationalism, a different play doing it here in Chicago, or did it matter where it would be done? 
If Bob had said no and we had opened the show in LA, it would be more or less the same play. But I feel that there are things that I will learn from the audience here that might be different from what I would learn from an LA audience. I noticed this with my work on “Flower Drum Song.” There are certain times that you bring Asian subject matter to the West Coast, and the West Coast is a little more attuned to that. Sometimes things are better received on the West Coast than they would be say, in New York. Maybe it has to do with being on the Pacific Ocean. So, I feel like I am going to get a different kind of reading for the play here. Mayor Daley was saying that this is the most China-friendly city in America. So, there certainly is an affection towards China here. And Chicago is a diverse community, which will influence how this play is perceived.