Produced by: Palo Alto Players
Featuring: Dianna Chung, Joyce Liu, Chris Mahle, Michael McCune, Jeffrey Sun, Isabel To and Phil Wong
Directed by: Lily Tung Crystal
When: June 13-28, 2015
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets: $31-$45 (discounts available). Visit www.PAplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.
the fluidity of identity
Here's why I love the plays of David Henry Hwang: They are enormously hilarious I mean, laugh out loud till other people in the theater would be staring at you, except they, too, are busy laughing but they are also meaningful, in ways that are important to human beings.
There aren't many other playwrights who manage that. Shakespeare certainly did; Harvey Fierstein has done so, but not so prolifically; and Laura Schellhardt seems to be developing in that direction.
Hwang, though, has an enormous pile of work gathered already, and an impressive collection of awards. His "M. Butterfly" won Tony and Drama Desk awards, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. His "Yellow Face" won an Obie and was also a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
His "Chinglish," about modern China, opened at Berkeley Rep on August 29, 2012.
Just recently, on August 23, 2012, it was announced that the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust is going to give Hwang the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, "a biennial prize that recognizes and encourages the artistic excellence and achievement of an American playwright whose body of work has made significant contributions to the American theatre," said a press release from Berkeley Rep. "In a ceremony on October 29 at the Lincoln Center Theatre, Hwang will be presented with a cash award of $200,000 along with 'The Mimi' ... The only previous winners of this prominent prize are Tony Kushner and Lynn Nottage."
"'I've been very fortunate to have found something I wanted to do with my life, and a place in the American theatre,'" Hwang said in the press release. "'Receiving the Mimi Award is an extravagant blessing, which overwhelms me with gratitude. Since learning the news, I've been able to turn down some commercial media work to focus on my theatre projects. My deep thanks to the Steinberg Trust and board.'"
Well, turning down that "commercial media work" just means that Hwang probably only has 9,999,999 things to do these days, instead of a full million things on his to-do list.
Like most successful people in the theater world, Hwang stays busy. There is no rest for creative people.
In fact, when we spoke by phone on August 18, 2012, Hwang's family wife Kathryn Lang and children Noah, 16, and Eva, 11 were in Wisconsin on vacation, and Hwang was working.
Do you ever sleep? I asked.
"There is an unusual number of things going on right now," Hwang said by phone. "Which is great, of course. A very busy time, including the 'Chinglish' tour is going out, and I am working on some musicals, a play, some movies."
"Chinglish," for which Hwang was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, opened at Berkeley Rep on August 29, and is to run through October 7, 2012. The production is also due to go to Hong Kong, and to South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa.
"Chinglish" is an excellent work that operates at many levels. Sure, it's very funny, using lost-in-translation jokes, among others, to get people laughing. But it's way deeper than that, an examination of the enormous changes under way in China, and in China's relationship with the rest of the world.
"China has changed so quickly," Hwang points out. "One year in China is like five in the outside world. The rate of change is unprecedented. There are people alive today who were born into a feudal system in China. ... There is economic disparity, a need to balance holding the country together with a need for power so many contradictions."
That change, from a feudal system of lords and serfs, through Mao's Communism, to whatever it is that is happening in China today, has led to a system called "Guanxi," a word that means "relationships."
It's not what rules you are following or what you know. It's who you know that counts. And that they have some form of power over whatever it is you want to do, and that they like you.
The play opens with its protagonist, Daniel Cavanaugh, giving a speech to the Commerce League of Ohio, explaining his experience trying to do business in China. He starts by explaining the difficulty of translation. For instance, "To Take Notice of Safe: The Slippery are Very Crafty" was an attempt to say "Slippery Slopes Ahead."
It all goes back, Cavanaugh explains, to Mao's insistence on simplifying Chinese for the masses. He did away with the beautiful and complicated means of writing the language, and in the process, much was lost. Which is a metaphor, of course, for other things lost in China's transition from feudalism to communism under Mao's cruel tyranny, and then to its modern mix of communism and capitalism.
So, for Cavanaugh, who in "Chinglish" is trying to revive his family's sign-making business by getting a rich contract in China, it's all about establishing some Guanxi.
He hires a fellow to help with the Guanxi, falls in love and lust with a woman who turns out to be much more important and powerful than he had thought, and just barely manages to survive and maybe even thrive. Guanxi.
Americans tend to worry about China, and they should. But China is not, in any real way, a monolith. It is a fluid, changing mass that in some ways is still trying to figure out how to exist in the larger world. Guanxi.
"I started going to China a lot in 2005," Hwang said. "They are very interested in bringing in a Broadway style show. I got to learn a lot about the place. There are lots of wonderful things happening, and lots of terrible things happening. I wouldn't have imagined it, as a kid."
Hwang's father, an immigrant from Shanghai, founded the first Asian-American federally charted bank, and "was rather successful," as Hwang says. Hwang's father encouraged and supported his playwright son, whose first play, "FOB" (Fresh Off the Boat), was performed in his dorm at Stanford, before eventually going to New York, where it won an Obie.
Hwang's relationship with his father is related in the play "Yellow Face," which also won an Obie and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. TheatreWorks staged an excellent version of it in 2009. See my review.
Hwang's mother is also of Chinese descent, but was raised in the Philippines. Her mother was the impetus of Hwang's first major creative writing project, when he was 10.
"My grandmother was ill," he said. "I thought she would pass away. At 10, I thought it would be doubly tragic, because she was the family's oral history keeper. We would lose all the stories. So, I spent a summer in the Philippines, did an oral history. I got the stories on cassette tape, and wrote a non-fiction novel about the history of our family."
Hwang grew up with a certain sensitivity to how Asians were portrayed in mass media.
"If I knew there would be a movie or a TV show with Asians," he said, "I would go out of my way to not watch it. Even as a kid. I know that these characters were supposed to give people an impression about me Charlie Chan, Hop Sing, whatever."
So he has developed a career out of creating his own images, his own impressions of Asians in America.
"It's kind of hard to be objective about my own writing," he said. "I think that probably what I'm writing about is the fluidity of identity. The way you think you are one person, but get put in another context, and suddenly it seems like you are a different person ... "The work that I do, the Asian-American work, the international work ... the stuff that isn't East-West ... it's all held together by this notion of shifting identity."
And yes, he stays busy. Besides working on "Chinglish," he is getting ready for revivals of his "Golden Child," which won an Obie in 1997, and "The Dance and the Railroad," his second play, staged in 1981, at the Signature Theatre in New York, which was created to honor playwrights. Also, he is working on "Kung Fu," inspired by the life of Bruce Lee. And, plenty of other film work.
"I didn't write a play for 10 years, between 'Golden Child' and 'Yellow Face,'" he said. "I didn't write a full-length play. I worked on musicals, movies, operas."
These days, he said, "I feel like I'm kind of in the fortunate position of having a second creative wind."
Email John Orr at email@example.com