The London Magazine interviews David H. Hwang, as his Obie Award-winning Pulitzer prize finalist play Yellow Face comes to Finsbury’s new ‘Park Theatre’, showing now until the 16th June 2013.
How did you get into playwriting? Was that something you always wanted to do?
I did not grow up with any sort of theatrical background, nor did I ever expect to become a playwright. During my freshman year of college, I saw some professional productions in San Francisco, and thought, “Maybe I can do that.” I then started writing plays in my spare time, and found a professor who was willing to take a look at them. He told me they were really bad – which they were! – and proceeded to arrange a course of study for me where I read and saw as many plays as I could for the next few years. In my senior year, I wrote a play called FOB to be performed in my dormitory. Through a variety of very fortuitous circumstances, FOB opened a year later Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, produced by the legendary impressario Joseph Papp.
What impact did the success of M.Butterfly have on your writing?
I was 30 years old when M BUTTERFLY became an international hit and, while I was obviously very fortunate to have enjoyed that kind of success, it also had its down side. For several years afterwards, I felt burdened by the weight of expectations, and that sort of pressure made it difficult for me to write. Eventually, however, my next production, FACE VALUE, was such a massive failure, closing in previews on Broadway, that it burst the bubble of expectation, and I could return to simply being a writer again.
What was the inspiration behind Yellow Face?
I was one of the Asian American theatre people who protested the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp in the musical MISS SAIGON when it came to Broadway, as an example of “Yellow Face” casting.. The intensity, vehemence, and anger I felt, on both sides of that issue, left me shaken for many years afterwards. So I wrote FACE VALUE, a comedy of mistaken racial identity, to explore the question, “What does it really mean to ‘play’ another race?” As noted above, FACE VALUE became an infamous flop, but the idea of doing a comedy of mistaken racial identity stayed with me for the next fifteen years or so. Eventually, I found another way to realize this notion with YELLOW FACE.
To what extent is the character of Hwang a representation of yourself?
I think autobiographical characters are always difficult. Even in a great work like THE GLASS MENAGERIE, for instance, one could argue that Tom is the least well-developed character. Paradoxically, once I named DHH after myself, I felt free to make him just a character, and liberated from needing to be strictly factual. So I suppose YELLOW FACE is a sort of mockumentary, or unreliable memoir.
How much of Yellow Face is factual?
Part of the fun of the play, I believe, is not knowing what is true and what is invented, so I’m going to duck that question.
Are you working on anything new at the moment? If so, can you give us a taster of what to expect?
My next show is called KUNG FU, based on the life of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, and will open in New York at Signature Theatre, which is doing a season of my work, in early 2014.
For more information and to purchase tickets to see Yellow Face visit http://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/yellow-face
By Alexandra Maher