Ask any Asian-American what their favorite problematic musical is and they are likely to name one of these three: The King and I, Miss Saigon, or Flower Drum Song. For me—and I feel some shame admitting it—it’s The King and I. I swooned when I saw the recent revival at Lincoln Center, directed by Bartlett Sher, featuring Kelli O’Hara’s soaring soprano and Ken Watanabe’s sexiness. As soon as the boat carrying Anna Leonowens sailed onstage (literally), I was hooked despite myself.
So was playwright and diversity advocate David Henry Hwang.
“That boat is fantastic!” he exclaimed over dinner one evening at Hakkasan in Hell’s Kitchen. “I always loved King and I, and then seeing Bart’s production—and realizing how terrible the show is—still by the end, I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s dying, and she loves him!’ It’s a very complicated feeling that you get when you see things that you know are offensive but they’re so well-done.”
That’s the feeling that inspired Hwang’s newest show Soft Power, co-created with composer Jeanine Tesori, and playing May 3-June 10 at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles (in association with East West Players). It will travel to the Curran theatre in San Francisco June 20-July 8. “It’s a play that becomes a musical,” explained Hwang. It takes place now and in the future, and is partly about China using musical theatre to promote its dominance on the world’s political stage. And borrowing a trope from his 2007 play Yellow Face, “There’s a DHH character who is trying to get his script approved by a Chinese film executive to shoot in China.” Hillary Clinton is also a character, though when we spoke, Hwang admitted he was still trying to figure out how to break the news to the former presidential candidate.
Director Leigh Silverman, who has collaborated with Hwang on six projects, compares Soft Power’s relationship to genre to that of the film Get Out, in the sense that “it’s a horror movie but it’s also making fun of horror movies, and it also has this searing political commentary at the center of it.” Likewise Soft Power is “both skewering and honoring” musical theatre and its historical role, along with most of American entertainment, in promoting white supremacy.
Though he’s 60 now, it’s clear that Hwang has lost none of his bite. And he continues to keep himself busy: He’s chair of the board of the American Theatre Wing and he’s working on a number of operas (including An American Soldier, playing at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June). Last fall he did a major rewrite of his touchstone play M. Butterfly for a splashy but unevenly received Broadway revival, all the while preparing Soft Power, a work so big and ambitious “it’s terrifying,” as Silverman put it.
So it’s been a season of looking to the past and to the future for Hwang. While I’ve spoken to Hwang over the years as a source for many stories, I’d never spoken to him at length about his life and his career. And as someone who, like many Asian-Americans of the generations that came after him, held up Hwang as an example when my parents asked me why I wanted to be a writer, I decided it was time for a real conversation.
We spoke days after the announcement that the revival of M. Butterfly—the one that catapulted him into theatre history as the first ever (and so far the only) Asian-American playwright to win a Tony Award—would close early. Hwang took the news with grace, as if he knew he had already proven himself and didn’t need further validation.
“Sure, it would have been nice if [New York Times theatre critic Ben] Brantley had liked M. Butterfly, and it would be nice if we didn’t have to close early,” he remarked with a shrug. “But ultimately I’m not dependent on that to continue working.” Indeed, he said, “I think it’s kind of cool I can go for 21 years without a good review in The New York Times and I can still have a career.” We spoke about that career, about his new play, and about whether or not revising M. Butterfly was a good idea.
DIEP TRAN: How can you survive as a playwright without any rave reviews from the Times?
DAVID HENRY HWANG: I don’t know. I guess the way that I see it is, you can’t game this thing. You can’t make something and try to do it so it’ll get good reviews or be commercially successful. If there is a way to do it, I don’t know how to do it.
What that means is I have to make sure that I have other outlets that allow me to survive. So I write a lot of things other than plays, so that protects me when I do the plays, because I’m not concerned.
Does it also help to have institutional connections like Center Theatre Group?
But those can go away too. There are a lot of people who—they may have had connections at various institutions and they can still call up those people, but they don’t get produced.
I also feel like I’m lucky that I picked a subject and had a point of view on the world or on America or our political situation, and the culture sort of moved toward the position that I took—except for the presidential election. But by and large, in the cultural community, it has continued to move toward issues of inclusion and all those things that I believed in early in my career when they were less widely accepted. And who could have guessed, when I started talking about China 40 years ago, that China was going to be so important that we were all going to have to think about China? So I feel like I lucked out in some ways.
You were christened very early on as the preeminent Asian-American playwright. Have you ever felt like you had to conform to certain expectations because you were that writer?
Yeah, I feel like when I first started wanted to write plays, I was like most Asian Americans of my generation—I didn’t think much about being Asian. I knew I was Chinese but I really didn’t identify with it. So I didn’t think that I was going to end up writing about some of this stuff.
I was home for the summer between my junior and senior year in college, and I saw an ad about studying playwriting with Sam Shepard. And it was the first year of what was going to become a prominent theatrical event in Southern California [the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in California], but this was the first year they decided to do it, and only two people applied. I was one of them, so I got in. At Padua, Sam and [María] Irene Fornés taught us to write more from our subconscious—not to be rational, not to be self-censorious, just to see what happens.
And I found that I was writing about stuff like immigration and assimilation in the U.S. So clearly some part of me was incredibly interested in these issues, but my conscious mind hadn’t figured it out yet. I feel like that changed my life. I often say that the artist creates the work, but the work recreates the artist, and there’s a reciprocal relationship where I created the thing, which then changed me. Over the last 30-40 years, there’s been times where I’m like, I don’t know if I want to be the Asian playwright. But most of the times when I go back to my original work, the most personal stuff, I’m still mostly interested in the same set of issues. Which is not unusual for playwrights. So I think it’s pretty artistically organic. For better or worse, it’s not something that I ever imposed on myself.
So about Soft Power—did you, like the character DHH, really try to get a TV show shot in China?
There’s some truth to that. The first scene [in Soft Power] is a discussion about content restrictions and what the Chinese are trying to do. Then DHH goes with the Chinese film executive to the 2016 Hillary Clinton fundraiser. And the executive makes this deep bond with her, and she says that when she becomes president, he’s going to be able to visit her in the White House.
Then it goes 50 years into the future, and this incident has become the basis of a beloved East-West musical in China. So we’re watching a Chinese musical about a good-hearted film executive who helps China step in and rescue the world when America collapses after 2016 (which is sort of happening).
When I first started writing it, I kind of assumed that Hillary was going to win, and it was going to be a little more like The King and I, where he was going to teach her how to solve the problem of gun violence in America. Then after the election, it was so much better—not for the country, but for my show. So now it’s about a Chinese musical that celebrates the rise of China over America, and what a bad idea democracy is—it’s an anti-democratic musical. You can see the Chinese wanting to make something like that.
So if we do it well, it should have that same complicated emotional feeling at the end where you’re watching something that’s basically propaganda. But so much is propaganda; it’s just that when we do it well, it’s art. So the show becomes, in part, about how empires use culture to reinforce their dominance.
Do you read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work? He talks a lot about how Hollywood is the propaganda arm of America, especially in relation to how movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon reinforce America’s version of the Vietnam War.
Right, and we think, “Apocalypse Now is so subversive and anti-American.” But we don’t understand the kind of underlying assumptions of the work, which actually—even though it is critical of that American policy in a micro-sense—is really reinforcing the sense of American dominance and white supremacy and, you know, white people in the center of the narratives of all that stuff.
China is doing the same thing now, starting to partner with Hollywood, as with The Great Wall. So they’re seeing the value of cultural capital.
I think soft power has been the goal of China for a good 20 years now. It’s the reason why I’ve ended up going over as often as I have in recent years, because there’s a big desire that they would create a show that would get on our Broadway. And I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person who’s done a Broadway show. So I’m the only person who they can ask, “Here, look at this musical that we have. If you tweak it a little, it could be a big hit on Broadway.” They’re just starting to get musicals, so in terms of their understanding of the form it’s Cirque du Soleil and maybe The Lion King.
M. Butterfly is about Westerners trying to dominate the East. So for the recent revival of the play, did that political message seem dated to you?
I thought about that. I believed that, despite the rise of China, A: There’s still an impulse to dominate China in the West. And B: International relations between the West and China are still gendered in the sense that, particularly in America, our masculinity is so performative. I still believe that the East is considered feminized. So if the East is powerful, it’s a different feminine model—I think it’s a dragon-lady model more than the lotus-blossom model. But when Trump or whoever says China is cheating, they can only be “Crooked Hillary” or “Cheating China”—women only get ahead when they are devious.
Jin Ha played Song Liling in the recent production. Can you imagine a version of M. Butterfly in which that role is played by someone who is gender-nonconforming?
We auditioned some gender-nonconforming people, because that would have been an interesting choice, but we obviously didn’t end up casting any of them. I did try to learn more and study more, because the term transgender didn’t exist 30 years ago. P. Carl at HowlRound was super-helpful; he really helped me understand that Song is not a transgender character, and that took a big load off my shoulders.
Also, after 30 years, Carl helped me understand a big part of my emotional connection to the play. He said that the reason Song is not transgender is that when he wants Gallimard to see his true self, he wants to show Gallimard his dick; if he were a transgender woman, he would not identify with that. So we concluded that what Song wants is to be desired as a man. And I was like, Oh my God, that’s how I relate to the play! Because as an Asian male, I want to be desired as a male. Maybe I should have figured that out 20 years ago.
Even though it closed early, do you think this revision of M. Butterfly was successful artistically?
I don’t know if it’s possible to know that for another three or four years at least. It wasn’t successful in that it didn’t run. But I think I’m on the right side of history.
I don’t know. For me that’s what it means to be an artist. You make the best thing you can, you invest in your thing, you investigate what you need to investigate, and you put it out there and then you don’t have any control over it. And that’s how I feel about my plays.
Do you prefer the old or the new version?
[pause] I prefer the new version, actually. But we’ll see. Assuming that people continue to produce the play, we’ll see what version they pick. It’s kind of like Flower Drum Song—you can do my version or you can do the old version (I think my version does get done more).
We’ll just see how this continues to play out over the next years and decades, or however long.