Art Talk with David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang
While an undergraduate at Stanford University, David Henry Hwang’s first play, FOB, was produced in the glamorous setting of his dormitory. The play, whose title is shorthand for “fresh off the boat,” examined the lives of recent Chinese immigrants. Though Hwang’s stages have changed from dorm floors to the country’s most respected theaters and opera houses (FOB went straight from Stanford to New York’s Public Theater), his work has returned time and again to themes of East and West, assimilation, immigration, and the stereotypes that lurk within us.
Born in Los Angeles in 1957, Hwang is perhaps best known for his play M. Butterfly, which won the 1988 Tony Award and Drama Desk Award, and was a finalist for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. Since then, his list of accolades has grown to include an Obie Award and Tony nomination for Golden Child, an Obie Award for Yellow Face, and a Drama Desk nomination for Chinglish. Hwang has also done extensive work with musicals and as a librettist. He worked on the Disney musicals Aida and Tarzan, and his re-worked book for Rogers and Hammersteins’ Flower Drum Song won him his third Tony nomination. We spoke by e-mail with the frequent NEA grantee about the challenges of moving between genres, the descriptive and restrictive roles of ethnic labels, and whether art has the power to change its creator.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest exposure to the arts as a child?
DAVID HENRY HWANG: My mother came to America to be a pianist, and majored in piano at the University of Southern California, where she met my father. Throughout my childhood, she taught music, both privately and on the university level. So I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t exposed to music.
NEA: The term “Asian-American” is frequently used to describe you, particularly in the context of the “first Asian American to win a Tony.” Is this a label that you find useful and descriptive, or confining?
HWANG: I’ve gone back and forth on this question over the course of my career. There have been times when I’ve embraced the label, and others when I’ve found it restrictive. Nowadays, I feel like every artist fortunate enough to have some reputation gets labeled in one way or another. It may not be in terms of ethnicity, but when we think of David Mamet, for instance, we imagine a play with lots of testosterone and swear words, which grossly simplifies his body of work. So I’ve come to regard the label “Asian-American playwright” as literally true---I am Asian American, and I am a playwright.
NEA: How do the language barriers you explore in Chinglish relate to the cultural barriers between China and the United States?
HWANG: I feel there are many layers of misunderstanding between cultures. In Chinglish, language is only the most superficial of these. Sometimes, even when you know what someone else is saying, he or she might as well be speaking a different language, because underlying cultural assumptions can vary so widely. So in Chinglish, characters misunderstand each other about topics as diverse as honesty, business dealings, love, and marriage. In some sense, none of us speaks a language perfectly; we all struggle to communicate, even within the same language and culture.
NEA: In an interview, you once said that, “When I do a play, I have a personal question that I’m asking.” Does the writing process answer that question, or simply lead to more questions?
HWANG: I feel that writing a play leads me to certain answers. But these answers lead to other questions, since seeking truth is necessarily a process of peeling back layers.
NEA: Does writing about themes of culture, identity, history, etc. change your own sense of identity? How so?
HWANG: When I first started writing plays, I had no idea I was going to write about many of the East-West and identity issues which consistently appear in my work. I simply wanted to become a playwright. The summer before my senior year in college, I took a playwriting workshop with some great dramatists, such as Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, and Murray Mednick. They taught me to write more from my subconscious. As I did this, I found these issues appearing on the page---like assimilation, immigration, clash of cultures. So clearly, some part of me was incredibly interested in these questions, but my conscious mind hadn’t realized that yet. And these discoveries set my life on an entirely different course. So, in a literal sense, the artist creates art. But it is equally true that art recreates the artist.
NEA: You’ve also worked on several musicals and as a librettist. What do you consider to be the pleasures and challenges of each different genre?
HWANG: The most important difference between genres involves knowing whose artistic vision guides the project. If I’m doing a play, I’m the principal artist, and the others work to support that. If I’m writing a film, however, it’s usually the director who’s in charge, and I support his/her vision. Similarly, with an opera, I’m trying to serve the composer. Musicals are possibly the most challenging form, because the project has to be driven by a kind of mind-meld between composer, lyricist, bookwriter, director, and sometimes, producer. Perhaps that’s why they’re so hard to get right. Sometimes, I enjoy being in charge; but I feel it is equally satisfying to be a good craftsperson, so I also enjoy working on other people’s projects.
NEA: What are you currently working on?
HWANG: The Signature Theatre in New York City, which devotes an entire season to the work of a single dramatist, is programming a retrospective of my work, starting this fall. This will include one new piece, called Kung Fu, inspired by the life of Bruce Lee, which will open in fall/winter 2013. In addition, I’m working on the film version of Chinglish, to be directed by Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, the Fast and Furious franchise); a movie for Dreamworks Animation; and an original musical with singer/songwriter Aimee Mann.
NEA: At the NEA, our motto is “Art Works.” What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
HWANG: As an artist, I feel the NEA’s slogan emphasizes that art is work. It is a job, I run a small business, and my product is scripts. It happens to be a job that I love, which allows me to utilize all my abilities, and to which I am passionately committed. But in the end, I have to make a living, pay my mortgage, and support my family. So I am proud to be a Working Artist.