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Hwang’s Metamorphosis : Trying His Wings Elsewhere After a Hit ‘Butterfly’

There is an unprepossessing air about this young man--something permanently boyish, serious, yet mirthful and ever so slightly surprised. In a room full of people and clinking glasses, he would be easy to overlook--unless you knew who he was.

Anyone who does know playwright David Henry Hwang also knows that beneath the unassuming exterior and behind the reedy, almost childlike voice, there is a tough-minded guy who knows what he wants, emboldened perhaps by having defied the odds.

Hwang is a native Los Angeleno who by pure chance got his playwriting start in New York and has never suffered the scorn so often heaped on Los Angeles playwrights by New York critics.

He is also a member of an ethnic minority--a Chinese-American who has seriously questioned if he should be writing “Orientalia for the intelligentsia” yet had his largest success doing just that.

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His Broadway hit, “M. Butterfly,” earned him a Tony at 30 for a play that has tweaked our Occidental values and prurient imagination with what another interviewer once described as “flourishes of Chinese opera, flashes of nudity.” And he has done it under stylish intellectual cover.

Now Hwang has taken off on a couple of new tangents. He is writing a screenplay for American Playhouse (untitled) and on Monday, the Philip Glass Ensemble’s sci-fi musical, “1,000 Airplanes on the Roof,” opens at the Wadsworth Theater. Hwang wrote the libretto.

“It’s a monologue set against a 90-minute Glass composition played by an ensemble on stage,” he said on a recent trip to Los Angeles. (He’s bicoastal.)

“Philip refers to it sometimes as an opera for an actor. And Jerry (designer Jerome Sirlin) has done these three-dimensional visual projections which create a large set for the actor to act in. The effect is that of putting a live actor into a movie. So it’s a piece that’s kind of a movie, kind of a theater piece and kind of a musical.”

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Which seems entirely appropriate for Hwang, who has an abiding interest in all three.

“We had a lot of music in the family,” said this son of a well-to-do immigrant banker and a pianist, who is himself a violinist and whose older sister is a professional cellist (with the Franciscan String Quartet). “My training as a musician gave me a certain understanding of structure, timing and the dramatic arc. When I first thought of ‘Butterfly’ I thought of it as a musical"--and indeed director John Dexter has given it a presentational sweep that suggests opera--"but by the time I got the idea of dovetailing it with the plot of ‘Madama Butterfly’ I was so eager to do it that I didn’t want to take the time to find collaborators and go through the lengthy process developing a musical involves.”

The size of “Butterfly’s” success still baffles 31-year-old Hwang. “I thought it could make back its money,” he said, “but the degree to which it seems to have taken hold of the popular consciousness is something I did not anticipate.”

The play is based on the 1986 case of a former French diplomat and his Chinese lover of 20 years, a one-time star of the Chinese opera, accused of spying for China. They had presumably had a child together, but during the trial the lover was found out to be not a woman but a man--to everyone’s bewilderment, especially the diplomat’s.

“Certainly the use of music in the play, both the live and the taped, and Puccini and ‘Lucia’ and Chinese opera give the piece a certain texture and theatricality,” Hwang said. “The intellectual compromise I made with myself is that people associate a certain level of exoticism with the East; therefore they’ll come to the theater to see this. What I figured we’d do is give them that , in spades, and at the same time try to subvert it by talking about exactly why it is that audiences are attracted to this material at the time that they are being attracted to it. So it’s some sort of intellectual. . . . “

Chinese nesting box?

“Sort of. Yeah. People are extremely interested in the changing power balance between East and West and how it might affect us--all questions the play touches on.” To say nothing of good old sexual politics.

“Men and women feel alienated from one another, and the idea that someone youlove is the opposite of what you may have thought taps into something. I’m drawn to interesting structures, whether it be how to balance, in ‘F.O.B.,’ my first play, a mythological story with the sitcom of three kids meeting in Torrance; or, in ‘House of Sleeping Beauties,’ take an author and put him into his work. “I’m interested in unlike things butting up against one another and seeing what kind of sparks fly.”

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Not so many years ago, Hwang himself was butting up against uncharacteristic self-doubt. After he wrote ‘Beauties’ and ‘Sound of a Voice’ (seen at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986) there was, he said, “a 2- to 3-year gap in my career when I was questioning the value of what I was doing. It bothered me that some of my plays that had more of the exotic elements associated with Asia seemed to be the more popular.”

Hwang broke out of that period by making a conscious effort to go against “anything I felt I’d been expected to do.” He wrote “Rich Relations,” a non-Asian play.

“Nobody liked it except me,” he said, amused. “I got slapped in the face but felt very good about it. I’ve said before that total failure was the most liberating thing since my early success. It’s true. I felt I’d done something I was pleased with and proud of--and everybody spat on it and I was still happy I did it. That gives you tremendous exhilaration, because the next time you want to pursue whatever it is you really want, it’s not going to hurt that much if people don’t like it.”

The notion of that Asians should write about Asians, blacks about blacks, troubles Hwang, who sees the ethnic self-affirmations of the ‘60s and ‘70s as necessary to their time but today “on the border of being reactionary.”

“The next frontier in this multicultural thing America’s becoming,” he said, “is that we’re all Americans, therefore we can write about anybody. ‘Rich Relations’ set the foundation for my being able to write about Caucasian characters and even, in ‘Butterfly,’ putting them back in the context of an Asian situation.

“ ‘Rich Relations’ remains the pariah of my plays,” he said, still amused, adding that a new production may be mounted in San Francisco next year at the Asian American Theatre Company, which “should be an interesting sort of switch for everybody.”

Hwang did not actively choose New York as a place to work.

“At the time I wrote ‘F.O.B.’ ,” he said, “I sent it to the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the Magic Theatre, the Public (in New York) and the Mark Taper. The people who responded were the O’Neill and subsequently the Public. The Magic and the Taper sent it back.”

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This led to a lengthy association with Joseph Papp of New York’s Public Theater. He produced several of Hwang’s plays.

As to why Hwang became a playwright in the first place, “I’ve never really gotten a good fix on that,” he said. “I thought I was going to major in social science and go into law when I got to Stanford. I eventually came around to majoring in English and then decided I wanted to write plays and found John L’Heureux as a playwriting tutor.”

Hwang reminded the interviewer that he played violin at the 1981 Padua Hills Playwrights Festival (“so I had some sort of interest even then”). Mako, who had staged “F.O.B.” at the Public and then re-staged it at his own East West Players in Los Angeles, was startled to learn that Hwang had briefly been an intern at East West and helped fix theater seats when his mother played the piano for a staging of “The Medium.”

Hwang’s only other Southern California exposure was the 1986 Los Angeles Theatre Center production of “Sound of a Voice.” His next play, however, will be developed at South Coast Repertory.

“South Coast has one of the most liberal commissions in the country,” he said. “I’m not crazy about commissions. The degree to which I accept them frankly has to do with how much money I have in the bank.”

Hwang concedes he is drawn to film. “Being of my generation, I’ve grown up with the movies even more than with theater. But there’s been the problem of not being able to be a primary voice in movies. It’s why I want to direct: to articulate a vision in film the same way I’ve been able to on stage.

“I like David Mamet’s career a lot,” he said. “And (Sam) Shepard just made his first movie” (directing “Far North,” a drama.)

Hwang’s project for American Playhouse (which he will also direct) is a co-financing deal that gives the Playhouse the television rights and leaves Hwang the theatrical rights, much as was the case with “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” “Smooth Talk” or “The Thin Blue Line.” It’s the story of an FBI agent who falls in love with the daughter of a man he had hounded to death 10 years before.

“The theatrical backdrop is the FBI investigations into communism in the Chinese-American community in the early ‘50s,” Hwang said. So he once again finds himself writing about Chinese-American connections.

“I’ve gone through a few phases on this now.

“Now I feel that my needs as an artist are essentially selfish and therefore I’m going to do whatever happens to interest me at a particular time. For instance, the Glass piece is not Asian at all. And I’m working on another screenplay that’s also a non-Asian project.”

Is that sort of crossing-over happening more these days?

“I accept it as a given that playwrights also write screenplays.”

And sci-fi operas.

“It makes a lot of sense. All those divisions smack of a certain elitism. It may be fun in terms of being a member of a particular club, but I don’t think it has much to do with the ability to create good work.

“I will always continue to be fascinated by the use of language and the setting out of issues in an articulate fashion. That’s very difficult to do in film and better suited to the stage.”

“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “Some time during the two years when I wasn’t writing I thought I should try to be more commercial. I came to the conclusion that I have no idea what that means. That, like failure, is liberating.

“ ‘Butterfly’s’ success is one of those rare instances that validates something that you do on the basis of principle,” he continued. “That sort of thing doesn’t always pay off. This time it happened to. It only encourages you to be bolder the next time. If I knew what would be commercial, I’m not so principled that I wouldn’t go and write it.”


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