The weather turned a little cooler on Friday, but so far no rain or severe weather. I spent the day in at the William Inge Theatre Festival participating in a few discussions, including one on the New Voices award winner, Most Deserving, by Catherine Trieschmann, and then listening to David Henry Hwang discuss his life and work in a conversation ala James Lipton (“Inside the Actors Studio”) led by former Los Angeles Times theatre critic Daniel Sullivan on the stage of the William Inge Theatre on the campus of Independence Community College.
Mr. Hwang’s life and writing career has been a good example of what happens when a playwright emerges and audience members have certain expectations from his work based solely on an outside factor that may have very little to actually do with his writing; in this case, the fact the Mr. Hwang is an Asian-American. His first big hit was M. Butterfly in 1988, which dealt with the story of a French diplomat in China who fell in love with what he thought was a Chinese woman but turned out to be both a spy and a man. The play looks at the assumptions the diplomat makes about Asian women, and in so doing examines the assumptions we all make about people because of who they are.
He followed up M. Butterfly, which won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, with a number of other plays that look at the life and experiences of Asian-Americans, but he also looks at himself and the role he’s playing in the perceptions. In 1990, when the musical Miss Saigon was coming to New York with a Caucasian (Jonathan Pryce) cast in the lead role of a Eurasian pimp, the question arose as to why an actor of Asian ancestry wasn’t cast in the role. It led to some interesting moments, including a protest by Actors Equity, the union of stage actors, and in response, Mr. Hwang wrote a play Face Value, which was about the Miss Saigon kerfuffle… and in doing so, he accidentally cast a Caucasian actor to play the lead role of an Asian. Much hilarity ensued. Face Value was a flop, and so in keeping with his talents, Mr. Hwang then wrote another play, Yellow Face, which told the story of the events around Face Value. (Still with me?)
What it comes down to is that David Henry Hwang has that most valuable quality of being able to look at himself, his art, and the people around him and write about them with both a distance that provides a perspective that we all can share, but also an intimacy that gets to the true heart of what he is both feeling and sharing. And he’s a damn good writer to boot.
Last night was the big gala dinner where we were entertained by songs from Mr. Hwang’s other shows, including Tarzan and the revision of Flower Drum Song, and the presentation of the Jerome Lawrence award to Elizabeth Wilson, a long-time attender of the Inge Festival and the only surviving member of the original cast of Picnic.
Today I present my paper at the scholar’s conference, then tonight is the tribute to Mr. Hwang with guests and surprises.