David Henry Hwang is currently giving a voice to Bruce Lee.
Courtesy photo by Lia Chang
David Henry Hwang isn’t lonely anymore.
Thirty years of mental isolation turned into overwhelming acceptance when he began writing plays. Well, not immediately after he started writing plays.
The Tony Award-winning writer of “M. Butterfly,” “Ch’inglish,” “Yellow Face,” “Golden Child,” and even a song by Prince, might have stayed alone with his electric violin in college had it not been for a professor believing in him.
His first play draft was terrible, he says. He knew nothing about theater.
But the professor must have seen something there because he created a program for Hwang to immerse himself into the craft. A graduate of Stanford and Yale University’s School of Drama, Hwang has frequently explored the experiences of Chinese and Asian Americans through his work, which, in addition to theatre, has included opera and film.
And now, in his late 50s, Hwang is recognized by Time magazine as “the most important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller.”
In addition to serving as an Asian-American role model using his plays to challenge perceptions of race, he is a generous mentor with a wicked sense of humor and a wry, sexy smile that makes it hard to believe he was ever alone. Though reviewers have told of the occasional bout of “divahood,” it has been largely attributed to his being his own worst critic.
His latest quest to meld what he feels and what he knows about being from two powerful and conflicted countries has led the father to two teens with his actress wife, Kathryn Layng, to imagine a different impression of Asian masculinity in “Kung Fu.” The Pulitzer Prize finalist, Obie Award winner, screenwriter and librettist will speak at the Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum on Thursday, Oct. 17, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts lecture series. His lecture will give a playwright and Chinese-American’s perspective to The Center’s current multidisciplinary project, “Stories of a Changing China.”
“We are pleased to host Hwang as a part of The Center’s Lecture Series and our multidisciplinary project on contemporary China,” said Katelyn Ziegler, director of education and humanities. “Hwang explores issues of ethnicity and identity in his work, and during his lecture, he’ll discuss China’s role in American popular culture and how our culture has influenced China.”
Hwang gave a few minutes to the Express in advance.
IME: It’s hard to find a question you haven’t answered in some format about your work. Is there a question you can recall wishing someone had asked but hadn’t?
Did the scene from “Yellow Face” with David Henry Hwang in the porn shop really happen? (Um, yeah, kinda.)
What’s the latest question you are exploring and in what form will it appear?
I’ve been exploring the search for a more positive vision of Asian masculinity, in my upcoming show “Kung Fu,” about the life of Bruce Lee, which will premiere in February 2014 at Signature Theatre in New York City.
You worked with Prince. Did you ever really understand why he did the symbol thing (for his name)? Ever thought about doing something similar? What would it be?
I never asked him about the symbol thing, but did note during that period that everyone in his organization still referred to him as Prince. I believe he was protesting feeling shackled to Warner Brothers Records, which he had come to find oppressive.
Personally, I have no desire to change my name to a symbol, though various people now refer to me as “DHH,” which is not so terribly different.
I understand your play “M. Butterfly” inspired Prince to reach out and ask you to write a poem about loss. What images/memories were you summoning when you wrote “Solo”?
I think I felt pretty lonely the first 30 years of my life, so it was pretty easy to access feelings of isolation to write the poem which he adapted into that song.
Has having children encouraged your writing in a different direction?
I’ve found myself dealing with the challenges of parenthood in shows like “Golden Child” and “Kung Fu.” I’ve always worked at home, so my kids learned from an early age that they weren’t supposed to bother me while I’m writing. They’ve generally been pretty good about that, and when they haven’t been, I’ve usually appreciated the opportunity to take a break.
You seem like a very easy-going guy in a very egotistical business. Are you always so generous with your knowledge? Why?
This may be surprising, but it has not been my experience that theatre is an egotistical business. Sure, you meet some jerks, like you would in any field, but in general, I’ve found theatre people to be a generous lot. They were to me when I was starting out, so I’m just paying back.
If you couldn’t write anymore, you would?
Return to playing electric violin, which I did during college and in my early-20s.
Hear David Henry Hwang
Tickets for the lecture are $20 for Center for the Arts members and $30 for non-members. To purchase tickets, go to www.sunvalleycenter.org or contact The Center at 726-9491, ext. 110.