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06/19/95

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David Henry Hwang -- profile of a playwright

STANFORD -- The grin is a killer.

Kicking back in black jeans, T-shirt and GQ blazer, playwright David Henry Hwang flashes a smile that could fuel a mile of footlights on the Great White Way.

"I considered making a very political speech," he says of his invitation to address this year's Phi Beta Kappa initiates June 16. "But then I thought, well, I'm an artist, and people probably expect me to talk about more aesthetic subjects."

He pauses.

"Besides, it's graduation weekend, and I don't know that people are necessarily interested in being chastised."

Relaxing in the side yard of the Faculty Club, where he and his wife, actress Kathryn Layng, spent commencement weekend, Hwang, best known for his M. Butterfly, is the quintessential home boy made good. He's the former English major, the jazz violinist who used to play at Tresidder, returned to Stanford with all the big awards Broadway has to offer -- a Tony, an Obie, a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, he's also a Clinton appointee to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Although Hwang went on to Yale School of Drama after his graduation in 1979, he always has been generous in acknowledging Stanford as the place where he became both a playwright and a self-identified Asian American.

"It's very tempting to take some credit for that," says John L'Heureux, Hwang's former English professor, "but it's just not possible. David would have become a playwright [wherever he went], and he is one of the purest examples I know of someone called to a vocation."

Given his charm and talent, it's easy to imagine Hwang turning out clever drawing-room confections in the tradition of Neil Simon. But while his on-stage dialogue can be devastatingly funny, his observations of the state of American theater focus on the "serious work" that is needed.

At a time when ticket sales for the season that just ended on Broadway topped $400 million -- a 50 percent increase over sales of four years ago -- many observers point to the virtual disappearance of straight dramas and the proliferation of musical revivals as symptoms of an industry with too many terminal afflictions.

"People have been saying that the theater has been dying since 1950," Hwang agrees, "and I think you can make a case that certainly on Broadway now there seems to be only room for revivals and one serious play a year.

"But I tend to think of Broadway as a lottery, where, if you keep working and you do the best serious work you can, then every few years -- maybe every decade or so -- you're going to have a hit. But the serious work is still going to be done off Broadway and in the regional theaters."

Hwang, 38, has been a consistent high scorer in the Broadway lottery during the 15 years that he has been writing professionally. His first play, F.O.B. ("fresh off the boat"), written while he was still an undergraduate at Stanford, garnered rave reviews. Follow-up productions included The Dance and the Railroad (1982 Drama Desk Nomination), Family Devotions (1982 Drama Desk Nomination), The House of Sleeping Beauties, The Sound of a Voice, Bondage and Face Value, which will be seen in a new version at Providence's Trinity Repertory Company next year.

Screenwriting for directors Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack has taken Hwang away from the legitimate stage occasionally, and he also has written the librettos for two operas by experimental composer Philip Glass. Last year Hwang finished a screen adaptation of the Caleb Carr novel, The Alienist. His newest play, which has only a working title so far, will open in New York in the 1995-96 season.

Hwang's most popular success, of course, is M. Butterfly, winner of the 1988 Tony Award for its complex telling of the real-life story of a French diplomat who discovered that his Chinese mistress of 20 years had been both a spy and a man. The play, wrote a New York Times critic, "breaches just about every convention of the commercial theater," and to date it has been produced in more than three dozen countries.

Some of the issues Hwang raised in M. Butterfly, including perceived Asian submissiveness and the origin of racial stereotypes, are among the hot-button topics that he thinks have to be addressed by today's playwrights. He describes his own Face Value, an early flop that will be resurrected next season by Trinity Rep, as a farce about the mythology of race.

"It asks the question, 'Does race actually exist?' And I think it dovetails nicely with a lot of the stuff we've been reading over the past year about whether there's a biological basis for racial difference."

Hwang first saw the Stanford campus as a member of a visiting high school debate team, and his ability to reason and present arguments has lost none of its edge. There must have been some moment in American history, he suggests, when it was difficult to imagine that people of English origin and people of German origin would ever be able to put aside their differences to form a unified nation. And once the country was composed of immigrants from northern and western Europe, there was the fear that huge numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe would not be able to assimilate.

"Those Mediterranean and Balkan influences were supposed to create chaos for America," he says. "But fortunately it all worked out OK. Some good things happened, and some bad things happened, but basically it worked."

In a similar way, Hwang sees today's theater moving away from so-called "single ethnic" focuses on producing black or Asian or Jewish works, to a theater of the future that will include every stripe and color. Like all the best debaters, he has a real-life story to illustrate the point he's trying to make.

Hwang says he has a friend who is part Irish, part Jewish and part Japanese. His friend is married to a woman who's part Filipino and part Haitian, and they've just had a daughter.

"Someone whose business it is to know these things told this couple recently that their child had never existed before [ethnically]," says Hwang. "My question is, if this child grows up and becomes a writer, what do we call her?

"I think we would have to call her an American writer. And I think that in the future, what we would now call multicultural theater will simply be called American theater."

The intensity of the national debate today about ethnicity, affirmative action and immigration is proof to Hwang that "something's going on." Although he sees a lot of anger and defensiveness on both sides, he remains upbeat about the eventual outcome.

"I am hopeful because I would like to be hopeful and because I want to be hopeful," he says. "I also realize that it's a bit ugly right now, and I think things are going to get uglier before they get better."

Hwang often has described himself as a normal, middle-class kid who grew up in a Pentecostal Christian immigrant family. He was raised in San Gabriel, a suburb near Pasadena, by his father, a banker who grew up in Shanghai, and his mother, a classical pianist reared in the Philippines. He has dipped into the family photo albums and tall tales for some of his plays, and he says his father was horrified when he saw the script of his son's first play produced at Stanford.

"He hadn't had any experience reading scripts, so he just sort of flipped through F.O.B. and saw a lot of swear words," says Hwang. "But he was open-minded enough to stay for the show, and he was very moved by it and cried and all that."

In his new play, which will open on or off Broadway in the 1995-96 season, Hwang is taking a more personal approach than he has before.

"It deals with my great-grandfather's decision to become a Christian in China," he says, "and it also deals with questions of cultural identity from the flip side -- why someone in another culture chooses or rejects ideas from the West.

"In the play I think there's a genuine need on the part of my great-grandfather to deal with change and to embrace change in the context of China. And to some extent, I feel that it's the quintessential story of what China has been through in this century, ever since the overthrow of the Manchu empire in 1912. The whole question has been, How do we change? How do we become modern? And what is the price we pay?"

Those universal questions go to the heart of much of today's drama, and Hwang says he feels a certain obligation to young playwrights who are trying to find their way. For the past five summers he has taught at the Padua Hills Playwriting Festival, where he first studied with Sam Shepard between his junior and senior years at Stanford, but he says he still approaches writing workshops with some trepidation.

"I think there's a certain responsibility we have to the next generation because it's a difficult thing to commit to wanting to be in the theater," he says. "On the other hand, I always feel like I have about two hours' worth of things to say that are really useful, and after that, it's all vamping.

"I mean, you can look at someone's script and go, well, maybe you should set up that event in the second act rather than the first act. But that's about it."

This summer Hwang will have to stretch his two hours of wisdom over 10 days at a screenwriting festival he has been invited to in Kent, outside London. Given the lack of critical acclaim for his last screenplay, Golden Gate, a feature film released last year that starred Matt Dillon and Joan Chen, Hwang says it's hard to know why he was asked to speak there.

"I really have not had a lot of success in the movies, so I'm at a loss," he says. "I suppose I will tell them what not to do, and then we'll have a nice vacation out of it."

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