About Face

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

David Henry Hwang spent much of his campus residency standing at the back of Roble Studio Theater, listening to audiences listen to his new comedy.

“Shifting in seats is never a good thing,” the award-winning playwright said toward the end of his 10-day visit in February. “Or people looking at their programs and watches.”

It’s a familiar scene in the theatrical “workshop” process—a staged reading that gives the lurking playwright a chance to hear when an audience laughs or gasps, “when people seem to be riveted by the action, and when they’ve lost interest.” Hwang explains, “I begin to learn about what I’ve written when I hear the work read out loud for the first time. Writing a play is like writing music because it’s not about how the notes look on the staff, but how they sound when they’re performed.”

But in the case of Yellow Face, Hwang, ’79, is listening to something a bit more complicated than the usual music. The lead actor is playing DHH, a character named David Henry Hwang who has done many things the audience knows to have been done by the playwright David Henry Hwang. These things include writing the triumphant Tony-winning play M. Butterfly, protesting the casting of a Caucasian actor in the musical Miss Saigon and successfully rebounding from the colossal flop Face Value, a 1992 farce about Asian-American identity. Given these “knowns,” what does it mean that in Yellow Face, DHH is also a corner-cutting egotist who unwittingly turns a white Jewish actor accustomed to small stages into a national-tour star heralded for his ethnic authenticity in playing the king of Siam?

It means that Hwang has whipped up a backstage comedy that provides, to quote the show’s program at its May premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, “a playful yet deeply serious look at current history, the unreliability of narrative truth and the instability of race as a social and biological category.”

From November 19 through December 23, at the Public Theater in New York City, Yellow Face, Hwang’s first nonmusical play in a decade, will open in the city where narrative truth usually gets its most important stage workouts.

Yellow Face is filled with theatrical in-jokes and asides—and it drops the names of Colleen Dewhurst, Frank Rich, Dick Cavett, Jane Krakowski, Fred Thompson, B. D. Wong and many others. The play’s starting point is the 1990 brouhaha on Broadway when Hwang led a protest against the decision to hire British actor Jonathan Pryce to star as the Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon. DHH explains the problem (in terms that echoed Hwang’s letter of protest to the Actors’ Equity Association): “I had dared to suppose that the yellowface days of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu had been relegated forever to the closets of historical kitsch.” The time seemed ripe to declare that the eye-taping and greasepaint days of casting whites as Asians (famous examples include Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and David Carradine in Kung Fu) were over, as unthinkable as blackface.

DHH’s (and Hwang’s) assumption was overturned when producer Cameron Mac­intosh refused to open the teeming musical in the United States if Pryce, from his London cast, weren’t its star. The actors’ union, faced with losing a blockbuster’s worth of jobs and genuinely conflicted about how such discussions play out in the theater world’s ethos of colorblind casting, acquiesced to Macintosh.

Yellow Face then spins off into DHH’s quandary when he writes a Hollywood farce about ethnic casting and inadvertently hires a white actor as his Asian leading man. Pretty soon the actor and DHH are locked in a yellower-than-thou rivalry against a backdrop of polarizing news events in the ’90s, including the espionage accusations against Wen Ho Lee and the campaign-finance scandal around Democratic fundraiser John Huang. Henry Yuan Hwang—a prominent Los Angeles banker, the playwright’s father who died of colon cancer in 2005 and the ebullient Yellow Face character HYH—provides perspective on these twists: the perspective of a Chinese immigrant with few prospects who worked his way up to an executive suite with its own shower.

In Yellow Face, Hwang, a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, turns over thematic ground he has plowed before, in such plays as F.O.B., Family Devotions, Golden Child and, most notably, M. Butterfly. “I think all writers have their particular area of obsession, and mine is the fluidity of identity,” he says. “There’s the way in which we may think we’re one person, but then we get put in different contexts and we become somebody else.”

Hwang’s earliest context was San Gabriel, Calif., where he was the only son of immigrant parents, with two younger sisters. His father came to America at 21, and worked in a laundry and as an accountant before founding the Far East National Bank in Los Angeles. His mother, Dorothy, was an accomplished pianist. David studied classical violin from age 7 to 17, then played jazz violin for another seven years. “They really wanted us to assimilate, and that’s why we didn’t grow up with any Chinese traditions. I never knew when Chinese New Year’s was until I was dating a Chinese-American girl in my senior year in high school—and she knew.”

Hwang’s parents were “quite fundamentalist” Christians, and that upbringing would occupy what he calls “one of the big struggles in my life, which I have written about in a number of places.” Growing up in “a cult-like mentality,” he adds, “you’re kind of like an ex-smoker—you have to be totally against it at first. It was a big deal for me to reject that in my 20s.” He now appreciates the “liberal Christianity” he finds in attending an Episcopal church in New York City.

Hwang discovered something else about his family early on. “Being a child of immigrants, you learn that your parents are not infallible because you end up being a kind of cultural translator for them. You realize very early in life that you know more about how to get around than your folks do.”

At Stanford, Hwang accompanied Ram’s Head productions in the pit orchestra, and also arranged music for productions of Damn Yankees and Good News in Soto lounge. (“I was never a great arranger, but someone’s got to do it in the dorm.”) On a dorm trip to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Hwang saw a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, and overnight he was hooked. “I thought, I can do that.”

Hwang knew he’d need guidance. “He wandered into my office one day and said, ‘Would you give me a tutorial in playwriting?’” English professor John L’Heureux recalls. L’Heureux asked Hwang about shows the freshman liked best, and was startled to learn that he hadn’t gone to more than two plays. “I said, ‘Son, get a grip.’ ”

But L’Heureux also saw “enormous energy and determination” in Hwang: “It was perfectly clear that whether or not I helped out, he was going to become a playwright.” L’Heureux became an independent study adviser for the young writer, who began turning in script after script. L’Heureux recommended Hwang for drama professor Martin Esslin’s graduate class in playwriting and was his advocate when he applied for a summer internship at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. There he wrote F.O.B., under the tutelage of Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Forties. “He came back electrified by the experience,” L’Heureux recalls. “And I discovered, right from the start, how completely obsessed he was with the Chinese-American experience. Freud would say he was conflicted about it. I would say that the greatest work is always rooted in who you are.”

Test-driving a play is emotionally draining, but Hwang, 50, feels pretty comfortable standing in the Roble wings. After all, he returned from Padua to co-found the Stanford Asian American Theater Project in his senior year, “because I wanted to do F.O.B. in the dorm, and [having a student organization] was how you got lights.” F.O.B., the story of two Chinese-American students and a young Chinese immigrant who is newly arrived in the States—or “fresh off the boat”—went on to be produced at Connecticut’s O’Neill Theater Center and won the 1980-81 Obie Award for best new American play. “I’m used to developing plays at Stanford,” Hwang says. “These are bright, curious, intellectual people, and I get so much out of the process of being able to rejuvenate myself in an academic environment.”

Hwang is the second in a lineup of artists who are being brought to campus by the University’s arts initiative, in partnership with the Public Theater and hosted by Stanford’s Institute for Creativity in the Arts and Institute for Diversity in the Arts. Last year, playwright Stew worked on his show, Passing Strange; this year, director JoAnne Akalaitis, Gr. ’61, will present an updated version of Euripides’ Bacchae.

On the Farm, Hwang rehearsed with a cast of actors including Hoon Lee and Francis Jue, who will reprise their roles as DHH and HYH in New York. Hwang penned rewrites on yellow legal pads in the mornings, and in the evenings observed the staged readings and fielded questions from the audience afterward. Perched for the talkbacks on a stool at the edge of the stage, dressed in chic-scruffy charcoal shirt, black jeans and black sneaks, with tousled spiky hair, he heard theatergoers testify about incidents of prejudice that echoed those in the play. He agreed with some who thought he hadn’t yet nailed the ending, which references a remote Chinese village where DHH’s nemesis has gone seeking Asian authenticity. “The ambition is for the play to land in a transcendental, spiritual place that I describe as a kind of cosmic pullback,” Hwang said after one of the three Stanford performances. “Time will tell whether or not I can do that.”

Hwang made time during his visit to talk with graduate students in the Business School and with freshmen enrolled in Introduction to the Humanities. “He was the perfect person in residency,” says Harry Elam, professor of drama. “He did anything and everything that was asked, even making psychiatric rounds at the Medical School.”

No kidding. At a dinner party early in his campus stay, Hwang was seated beside psychiatry professor Barr Taylor, training director for the Medical School’s adult psychiatry residents. The conversation turned to psychoanalysis. “Barr told me, ‘My students have never met anybody who’s been in analysis.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re obviously not in New York.’” Hwang went to Taylor’s seminar and talked with the doctors about the nuances of identity. Says Taylor: “He was incredibly open and articulate about his experience [in psychoanalysis]. We also discussed some themes raised by Yellow Face—What does it mean to ask, ‘Where do you come from?’ And, ‘What is your cultural identity?’ And, ‘How do we think and talk about race in our work as physicians and therapists?’ ”

Hwang suggests that in his plays the Aristotelian notion of character—“you are what you do”—often is at war with the Freudian notion of having an essential self. He offers as example the maze of relationships and subplots that girds M. Butterfly. “Here you have a play by an American playwright of Chinese descent, which is about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese spy, which is told in terms of an Italian opera about a Japanese woman who falls in love with an American soldier.”

The twists in Yellow Face aren’t quite as devilish, but at least one cast member did considerable research time to try to distinguish the real-life events in Hwang’s work from his dramatic constructs. “Lucas Rooney, who played the FBI agent, became obsessed during rehearsals with figuring out what’s true and what’s not,” Hwang recalls, while declining questions that might sort out the facts from the factoids. “He had no other life for five weeks, and he actually figured it out.”

A self-described fan of such “mockumentaries” as This Is Spinal Tap, Borat and The Office, Hwang says he struggled for years, after the “legendary Broadway flop” that was Face Value, to find a form in which he could explore the ever-changing nature of identity. Then, in 2000, “a number of Asian-American filmmakers put me in their works, most prominently in a short called Asian Pride Porn. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just put myself in my play since so many works by authors of plays and novels are really their own lives, thinly disguised.’ ”

Directed by Leigh Silverman, Yellow Face certainly has a documentary quality—with a handful of actors on a spare set who step forward to present dozens of roles when “The Announcer” identifies them. In the Mark Taper and the Public Theater productions, one of these actors is Hwang’s wife, Kathryn Layng. An actress of European descent, she plays DHH’s mother, among other roles. Hwang met Layng on the set of M. Butterfly, and they are parents of 11-year-old Noah David and 6-year-old Eva Veanne. The children clearly are close to their father’s thoughts when he asks self-reflective questions like, “How do you really tell people of different races nowadays, when there’s so much intermarriage? What does race mean nowadays? Are culture and race necessarily the same thing?”

Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, puts it this way: “David’s play manages to capture this precise historical moment: we know identity politics has let us down, but we also know that race and racism are real factors in contemporary American life. In this contradiction, we have to find a way to live.”

Following the huge success of M. Butterfly, Hwang collaborated with composer Philip Glass to write the libretto for 1989’s 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof: A Science Fiction Music Drama. He co-authored the book for Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, and wrote the book for Disney’s Tarzan. In 2003 he wrote a new book for Flower Drum Song, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in San Francisco’s Chinatown—a work some considered hopelessly stereotyped, and one that many critics didn’t believe Hwang’s book rescued from that opinion. (Critics? “I don’t really respect most of them, but they’re important.”)

Writing among so many genres “allows me to use a variety of different muscles,” Hwang says. With that flexing comes more confidence. “I feel like I’m able to apply the craft lessons I’ve learned from working in all these fields, and I’m better than I was 10 years ago. I just know how to do more things.”

When he talks with students, many of their questions focus on the bottom line. At a time when Hollywood script readers are looking for “tent-pole” blockbusters, Hwang tells them that, “You can’t anticipate what theaters want or what’s likely to get you in the door—because the thing that’s likely to get you in the door is the thing that you feel most passionately about.”

Hwang instead encourages aspiring playwrights to pursue the unexpected. “People ask, ‘How do you know what you should be writing?’ And the best analogy is falling in love, when you’re obsessed with someone and you get that weird chemical brain fry. The thing you fall in love with is the thing you have to write.”