David Henry Hwang makes a triple-play for Chicago
David Henry Hwang has finally found a home in Chicago. Make that three homes for three plays.
The playwright’s work is seldom done here, but this summer marks a turnaround. The Goodman Theatre stages the world premiere of his newest work, “Chinglish,” Silk Road Theatre Project presents the 2007 play “Yellow Face” and, later in the summer, Halycon Theatre produces a much earlier work, “Family Devotions.”
Hwang, best known for the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play “M. Butterfly,” long has wanted to form a relationship with a Chicago theater. Silk Road founders Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury started the company with a mission to address themes relevant to the people of the Silk Road and their diaspora communities. Hwang’s work was a perfect fit.
The company’s relationship with Hwang began in 2007 with a staging of his drama “Golden Child.” Today, Hwang has the title of Silk Road artistic ambassador.
“David has certainly gone above and beyond any expectations in how he’s connected us to writers and artists at other institutions,” Khoury said. “He takes a sense of ownership that we greatly appreciate.”
Hwang credits Silk Road with helping “open the door for an awareness of my work in Chicago, which is arguably the most vital theater town in the country.”
He goes back a decade with Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, having co-written the book for the Elton John musical “Aida” which Falls directed.
Hwang has debuted many of his plays at New York’s Public Theater, where he has a longstanding relationship with artistic director Oskar Eustis. But he has long wanted to offer a work to the Goodman and decided to send “Chinglish” to Falls.
“I thought this is a play that would work in Chicago,” Hwang said.
“Chinglish” grew out of the experiences Hwang had in China over the last five years. Although of Chinese descent, he’d never before spent much time there. He was asked to consult on staging Broadway-style productions that the Chinese hoped would make it to New York.
“None of these projects materialized, but the experience did give me an opportunity to learn about China, which is obviously fascinating,” Hwang said in a conversation from his Brooklyn home. “It got me thinking about writing a play that would have something to do with doing business in China amidst the problem of the language barrier.”
In “Chinglish,” an American businessman in China finds himself enmeshed in a system more complex than he ever imagined. The play, under the direction of Leigh Silverman, is performed in both English and Mandarin (with English subtitles).
Much of the play ends up being about mistranslation and about how an interpreter says one thing when the speaker is actually saying something else. But there’s also “a love story and plenty of humor,” adds Hwang.
Silverman, who also directed the premiere of “Yellow Face” at the Public, feels “Chinglish” is a play only Hwang could have written.
“I think he feels he has a foot in both worlds and in a way doesn’t really belong to either,” Silverman explained. “There is a recurring theme in his plays: this idea of where do we belong, what gives us our identity and how do we choose identity.”
“Yellow Face,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist, also delves into these themes. But Hwang does something different here; he inserts himself as a character. The “stage mockumentary,” as he calls it, had been brewing for a long time and dates back to the 1991 “Miss Saigon” controversy.
When the musical transferred from London to Broadway, it was met with protests by Asian-American activists because white actors were playing Asian characters in two of the main roles. Hwang was among those who objected, writing a play, “Face Value,” in response. But it flopped, closing in previews on Broadway.
More than a decade later, Hwang was still haunted by the experience, and the backstage comedy “Yellow Face” was born. In the play, a writer (named DHH) casts a white actor in a play called “Face Value” and tries to pass him off as Eurasian (a Siberian Jew). One thing leads to another, and the actor actually starts believing in his incorrect heritage.
“I could have made fun of any number of figures in the multicultural movement, but it just seemed easier to make fun of myself,” Hwang said, with a laugh. “I actually found it really liberating. He’s the one who makes the biggest mistakes and in some sense is the most foolish person in the play. Hopefully that allows us all to laugh and gives us some breathing room to make our own mistakes.”
“Yellow Face” is directed by Steve Scott, in association with the Goodman. Khoury said it’s the “quintessential Silk Road piece.”
“At its core are so many of the questions we’ve grappled with and have made central to how we understand ourselves as a company,” Khoury added. “It’s a smart play that helps us look at these questions through multiple lenses.”
Halycon Theatre artistic director Tony Adams was looking for a play to showcase ensemble member Christine Lin when he chose Hwang’s 1981 play “Family Devotions.” (In a surprising confluence, Lin ended up being cast in “Chinglish.”)
The third entry in the Hwang festival, “Family Devotions” is set in Los Angeles, where a family awaits the arrival of a famed great uncle from communist China.
“It’s a comedy with important themes that looks at three different generations of Asian Americans and what it means to be American,” Adams said.
The two recent plays examining tradition, change and East-West relations are a return to form for Hwang.
For the past decade, Hwang took a detour into commercial theater beginning with the work on “Aida.” He provided a new book for the 2002 Broadway staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” wrote the script for the Disney musical “Tarzan” and did the libretto for Howard Shore’s opera “The Fly,” directed by David Cronenberg.
Currently, Hwang has returned to “the thing that’s most my own.” He’s working on two new plays. One called “Daughter of Shanghai” is based on a memoir by actress Tsai Chin, who has “lived an amazing life on three continents.” Another is about the American colonial experience in the Philippines.
“Fortunately, I have a window in my life right now that allows me to get back to writing plays,” Hwang said. “I’m feeling excited and productive and full of ideas, and that’s good because who knows how long that will last.”