Each month Brian James Polak talks to playwrights about the things usually left unsaid. In conversations that dive into life’s muck, we learn what irks, agitates, motivates, inspires and—ultimately—what makes writers tick.
This month Brian spoke to David Henry Hwang, the multiple Pulitzer finalist playwright of M. Butterfly, Yellow Face, and Soft Power. In 1988 M. Butterfly won the Tony Award for best play, making him the first and only Asian American to win the award.
He attributes his early success to the support by Joe Papp producing his first three plays at the Public, though he relates how it could gone an entirely different direction. As David tells it, Joe Papp gave him notes on his first play, FOB, that Hwang didn’t agree with. So instead of making the changes, he waited a few weeks and sent Papp the same draft—which was subsequently produced at the Public the following season to great acclaim.
Hwang also recounts his 2015 stabbing by an unknown assailant, and how it wasn’t viewed as a hate crime at the time; he relates that particular moment in time to the rise in violence against Asian American/Pacific Islander people we are currently seeing in the U.S. now. He describes himself as “sufficiently compartmentalized” so that the event did not stop him from his usual routines, including attending a production of the musical Allegiance the following day. He says didn’t really process his stabbing until he incorporated the event into his musical play Soft Power.
This ability to compartmentalize has allowed him to navigate some of the highs and lows that come with the business. Ironically, the great success of M. Butterfly led him into a year-long depression following its run, while the “big flop” of the subsequent Face Value on Broadway is what he credits with pulling him out of that funk, “because the flop happens and you don’t die.”
The episode can be found here.
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