Politics and The Playwright

A Conversation With David Henry Hwang

Recently The Crimson spoke with David Henry Hwang, Face Value, is in Boston for its pre-Broad-way Hwang, M. Butterfly, a critical and popular success the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988.

When M. Butterfly was reviewed in The New Republic, Robert Brustein had said that there was too much plot, much going on, but that he still preferred an overspiced dish to stale white bread--do you think you tend to too much plot, too much story in this new play?

A lot of people left there was too much going on in M. Butterfly I remember someone saying Hwang never takes on one subject when he can take on six. Essentially, I think this play deals with fewer issues than Butterfly. Butterfly attempts to compose a theory of the other which takes into account racism, sexism, imperialism--and tries to create a system in which all these factors work together. This play is basically about race, about whether race is real or mythological, whether it's a construct that has any usefulness.

This idea of difference as construct, it's been contemplated in other places, Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway, the film, "The Crying Game." Do you think there's a high level of interest, receptivity, for theorizing about constructions of other?.

I enjoyed Prelude to a Kiss and I loved "The Crying Game." I think there's a lot of interest right now in the question of what are the politics we live by, what are the roles. Whether they're sexual roles or ethnic roles, there's a whole lot of moving around right now between what were heretofore pretty inviolate categories. I mean, the whole nation that face is a construct which is increasingly useless I don't mean to deny the importance of culture, I think people come from different cultures, and cultures, like families, predispose one to certain behavior--I just think that increasingly the notion of race and culture don't go hand and hand.


Q: You've described yourself as a born-again Christian, second generation Chinese-Filipino American kid from the suburbs of L.A. You said a few years ago that you wanted to explore the "mysteries of our identities"; do you no longest think there are mysteries, or just that they don't stem from our ethnicities?

A: There are intrinsic mysteries to ethnicities, but there's no particular reason we have to be bound to the particular faces or ethnicities that we happen to be born into. It's important to know what you grew up with but you don't necessarily have to accept it. You can, knowing those facts about yourself, then choose any number of things to explore. I think those can be done simultaneously.

Q: The novelist Ben Okri has said his work is more inspired by what he's read, especially by Wole Soyinka, than by what he's learned at his grandmother's knee.

A: Like the sense of Chinese mystery in F.O.B., my first play, was derived largely from Chinese-American writers, from Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, not so much [from the fact] that when I was little, my grandmother told me the story of so-and so. There are simplistic assumptions people make like that when actually the reality is so much more complicated. I can learn about culture through Kingston, through Soyinka.

Q: F.O.B. was produced at Stanford when you were a senior before it was reworked at the Papp theater. Face Value too seems to be infused with questions of identity politics very familiar to most college campuses.

A: I think a lot of my perspective on this was formed during my undergraduate years. A lot of the dialogue on multiculturalism and cultural diversity in general comes out of an academic setting. The fact that I'm now 35 and I'm still dealing with some of these same terms and issues isn't really surprising; those debates have gone out from campuses into the general culture.

Stanford was an amazing formative period for me. I went into college not knowing I was going to be a play-wright, it was a period of great growth for me, one of the conflicts was that I began to be aware of Asian-American politics and literature and I went into an isolationist nationalist phase, and I think that's really important. At the same time, I knew even when I was in the phase that it should be only one step on a longer journey.

So I think it can be really useful, but I also think if you stay too long in that category, in that place, it's like staying too long in any one phase, you stop evolving. It's like people who are in their thirties and still hang around their old high school; it just becomes a little pathetic. So that put me in a certain amount of conflict with people who were a little more righteous about the Asian-American movement. I think partly it's a result of having been brought up as a fundamentalist and rejecting that. I now have an inherent problem with fundamentalism on any level.

What Face Value is about is people being in situations where they have to be in the other person's shoes. I mean the whole idea that Bernie, the actor, is playing an Asian, then is oppressed as an Asian, and then because he's oppressed his consciousness is raised--I mean there's something kind of delicious about that: The raising of the consciousness has nothing to do with the skin color you're born into; it has to do with the nature of your experience. I hope the play is making fun of fundamentalism on any level it might occur.

Q: And the fourth wall, why introduce that?

A: The play is so naively utopian, which is why the naive characters, Jessica and the pastor, express the point of view of the play. I think it's simultaneously important to have that innocence and also to recognize the situation we're in. For me, the Pirandellian scene was a counter-point: what actually happens when you talk about these things is everybody gets pissed off. The play acknowledges the reality of the situation and at the same time hopes that there can be a sort of transcendence.

Q: And your reaction to to Miss Saigon?

A: My first reaction as a theatergoer was, "This isn't very good." I think it particularly struck me [because of] the portrayal of Asian men, whether or not Jonathan Pryce was in it--that crafty Oriental thing. It's taking the international Jewish conspiracy and transferring it to the Asians. It falls into the Yellow Peril idea pretty consistently. There were two issues in conflict: the casting issue and the content issue. You can't, one week, protest, "We want jobs," and the next week go up with signs that say "Racist Musical."

Q: You've said that your parents were initially concerned about your nontraditional career choice. And now?

A: They're happy their faith paid off. They're immigrants, it's hard, their only son going into something so risky. On the other hand I think my father has a bit of a showbiz streak in him.