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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: David Henry Hwang

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-03

Playwright David Henry Hwang is currently playing doctor on Broadway.

He goes to the Richard Rodgers Theater where Disney's musical extravaganza, "Tarzan," is in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theater (it will formally open on May 10). Armed with a notebook, Mr. Hwang occupies different seats at different performances to check out the characters - and to gauge audience reaction. Other members of the core "creative" team are scattered throughout the theater, each monitoring his or her specialty - music, lighting, sets, and makeup, among other things.

"I've been called in to play doctor before - for Disney's 'Aida' in 2000," Mr. Hwang said yesterday. "Now I'm playing doctor on my own show."

Mr. Hwang wrote the book for "Tarzan," and Phil Collins - who scored the 1999 film of the same title, and won an Oscar for the hit, "You'll Be in My Heart" - has composed additional songs for the Broadway production. Already, Mr. Hwang and his collaborators trimmed the show by four minutes to two hours and fifteen minutes.

"I have learned to check with my gut - and, basically, the fit is much better now," he said. "The audience response has been fantastic."

The audience has also been paying fantastic prices - up to $300 per seat on some online ticket sites.

That people would clamor to see a show written by Mr. Hwang is scarcely surprising. His celebrity has endured since the stunning commercial success of "M. Butterfly" in 1988. Mr. Hwang's touching story of a French diplomat who fell in love with a Chinese spy - a man who masqueraded as a woman - won just about every theatrical award, including the Tony for best play of the year.

Mr. Hwang was barely 30 when "M. Butterfly" opened, and soon he was being hailed as the most talented young playwright in America. "M. Butterfly" has since been staged around the world - although not in China, the homeland of Mr. Hwang's forebears, where official disapproval of homosexuality may account for the government's gimlet eye on the play's gay subtext.

"As a writer, you're always out fishing - and sometimes you cast bait and reel in something big," he said. "I was, however, surprised by the commercial success of the play. Lightning struck. The pressure that success spawned wasn't such a bad thing for me - I felt encouraged, and was able to sustain my creativity."

Some of his works in the years following "M. Butterfly," such as "Face Value" in 1993, were less enthusiastically received by audiences. Indeed, he characterized "Face Value" as a "disaster." In addition to the stage, Mr. Hwang wrote libretti for three operas by experimental composer Philip Glass, and also undertook screenwriting assignments for directors Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack.

Mr. Hwang was invited by Disney to write "Tarzan" soon after his work on "Aida."

"'Tarzan' is the second most filmed title in history, after 'Dracula,'" Mr. Hwang said. "There's a faintly racist impression one gets from the Tarzan legend - a white boy raised in Africa by apes. So I was curious about the real story, and decided to read 'Tarzan of the Apes,' the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

"In the novel, Tarzan's grown up with a vague sense that there's some other history to him. Then a British expedition encounters him, causing him to have an identity crisis. It's not really all that different from the Asian-American experience - it's just in a different context. If you strip away the epic quality, there's a story there. That's the story I set out to write - a man caught between two worlds who has to decide who he is in order to move forward."

As with his other writings, Mr. Hwang drafted "Tarzan" in longhand on yellow legal pads while lying on the floor of his home in Brooklyn Heights, which he shares with his actress wife Kathryn Layng and their children Noah, 10, and Eva, 5. Mr. Hwang then types his manuscript on a computer, using a screenwriting program called "Final Draft," which offers the template for dialogue and staging instructions.

Does he wander around the streets of New York as, say, a novelist would, absorbing details of real-life situations?

"No - I write intuitively, it comes from my subconscious," Mr. Hwang said.
Writing, in fact, has come naturally to him since his days in Los Angeles, where he grew up as the only son of Henry Hwang, a banker, and his wife Dorothy, a professor of piano. He and his two younger sisters, Mimi and Grace, were raised as Evangelical Christians. (The Hwangs later donated $150,000 toward the construction of a 220-seat theater in Los Angeles that they named in honor of their son.)

"I was always interested in history, particularly immigrant history," Mr. Hwang said. "I discovered how my cultural background as a Chinese was incorporated into the American-immigrant experience of Chinese-Americans."

He set about exploring that experience in an unusual manner. At the age of 10, he persuaded his parents to send him to meet his maternal grandmother, Huang Chaio, who lived in Cebu, the Philippines. He interviewed her extensively, and produced a book, "Only Three Generations."

"The title comes from a Chinese proverb - the wealth of a Chinese family lasts only generations," Mr. Hwang said.

He said that his interest in the Chinese-American experience continued during his years at Stanford University, where he majored in English. After attending plays at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he decided to write for the stage; by his senior year, Mr. Hwang had written and produced his first play, "FOB," an acronym for "fresh off the boat." The play was later staged off-Broadway, and won an Obie.

"I was freakingly lucky at an early age," Mr. Hwang said.

Critics noted that he'd displayed a keen and sensitive understanding of the often conflicting cultural forces that buffet immigrants.

"'FOB' focused on a Chinese immigrant's relationship with two Chinese American students he meets in Los Angeles," Mr. Hwang said. "The immigrant quickly learns that he is expected to abandon much of his Chinese identity if he is to fit into mainstream American culture."

After Stanford, Mr. Hwang taught briefly at a high school in Menlo Park, and then enrolled at the Yale University School of Drama. But New York beckoned, and Mr. Hwang abandoned the groves of academe for the glitter of the Manhattan stage.

He continued exploring the experience of Chinese immigrants and, as Mr. Hwang put it, "how they forge traditions of their old culture with the cultural exigencies of their new land."

He's writing a new play, "Yellow Face," that he characterized as an autobiographical work. Mr. Hwang, who's been increasingly visiting China, is also writing another play based on the story of an American businessman in Shanghai.

"As I've evolved, I feel more Chinese than Asian-American," Mr. Hwang said. "Perhaps that's because internationalism has superseded multiculturalism. To focus simply on how different groups in this country interact seems too small a topic now. We need to start looking at all the people of this world interact. As the world grows more complicated, race alone doesn't tell you much anymore. It's all about culture - the family writ large."

That is a theme Mr. Hwang is also likely to sound tonight as he's honored at the Cherry Lane Theatre where he mentors young playwrights.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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