Living Writers: David Henry Hwang

Betsy Bloom

Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin’s intro­duction to Living Writer David Henry Hwang’s lecture was so complimen­tary that he had to take a few breaths in order to get through it. He informed the audience that, as an Asian American, he was always taught to deny flat­tery, a trait that poses a problem when you have so much to be flattered about. Hwang has written several incredibly popular plays, the most popular of which, M. Butterfly received Tony, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards, in addition to being nominated for a Pulitzer. The Colgate Living Writers class read his acclaimed Yellow Face, which received an Obie Award and was also nominated for a Pulitzer. Somehow, in between penning criti­cally acclaimed productions and receiving awards, he also found time to work as a book writer for Disney’s Tarzan and Aida and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song.

Hwang’s extensive list of accomplishments might owe something to the fact that he’s been working and writing pretty much since he graduated from college. He discovered he was interested in theater during his sopho­more year at Stanford and soon after began composing plays to produce in his dorm rooms. Hwang recalled that the best preparation for writing plays was see­ing plays; he saw everything and anything he could, absorbing different techniques and styles that he would later channel in his own works.

Hwang’s work focuses generally on East-West issues, a theme he did not re­alize he was interested in until he began writing “unconsciously.” As Hwang de­scribed it, the process of writing uncon­sciously begins when “that part of you that censors you, or says ‘this is bad’ gets turned off.” As soon as he started doing this, Hwang discovered that he always found himself writing about Asian experi­ences. At first, this bothered him, because he felt he was limiting himself. But soon, he came to three realizations.

First, the more specific you are, the more universal you are. In other words, if characters are complex and detailed enough, they will be relatable no matter how unrelatable their circum­stances. (A peasant in Medieval England might remind you of your Great Uncle Alvin if he is drawn specifically enough).

Second, all American literature is ethnic in some way. The American experience is an ethnic experience and it is not possible to tell an American story without including that.

Finally, authenticity is best. The tried but true: write what you know.

Following these realizations, Hwang has penned some of the most cel­ebrated plays of his era (Asian-American or otherwise) and helped to expand, enrich and enliven Asian representation in media. He admitted that his in­volvement in the Asian sphere of theatre has occasionally caused him negative publicity. Such was the case in the late 1980s, when Hwang protested the casting of Caucasian actor Jonathon Pryce for the role of a Eurasian character in Miss Saigon. Hwang went on to write Face Value as a response to the cast­ing, which was a no-holds-barred flop. One review was titled: “M. Turkey.” However, Hwang channeled the media bashing into Yellow Face, a play about his experience with the Pryce controversy and the Face Value failure. A semi-autobiographical piece of self-mockery, Yellow Face has done wonderfully and received countless awards and honors.

Hwang read a short excerpt from Yellow Face that featured a phone conver­sation between the main character, DHH, and his father. The excerpt was hilarious and insightful. It managed to be mocking and touching. His point about specificity was suddenly very clear: elements of the dialogue between DHH and his slightly confused and mildly overbearing Asian father could easily have been copied from one between a Colgate student and his/her own father.

Hwang was an exceptional and eye-opening speaker. He provided insight into the writing process and how writing can influence a person as much as they influ­ence their writing. By making himself a character in his plays, Hwang took the final plunge into full writing immersion. Luckily, it’s all paid off.

As he put it, “It’s been nice to see that the people who play me are much hotter than I am.”

Contact Betsy Bloom at [email protected]