Last reviewed: June 2017
Chinese American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter
August 11, 1957
Los Angeles, California
David Henry Hwang has been a prominent playwright for the American stage since the early 1980’s. Best known for M. Butterfly, Hwang typically questions traditional racial and gender stereotypes, complicates notions of cultural identity, and chronicles the Asian American experience in the United States.
The son of banker Henry Yuan Hwang and piano professor Dorothy Yu (Huang) Hwang, Hwang grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His parents were both immigrant Chinese Americans. As a child, Hwang studied classical violin for ten years and later played jazz beginning in his college years, a musical upbringing and calling that influenced many of his dramatic works, most notably M. Butterfly, which melds Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly (1904) with a historical account of French-Chinese espionage, sexual liaison, and imprisonment. Later, Hwang would collaborate with Philip Glass, writing librettos for Glass’s musical compositions. David Henry Hwang.
David Henry Hwang.
Hwang’s family practiced a blend of Asian and Christian fundamentalism, and he was brought up in a conservative household. His mother and father’s faith and politics influenced his dramatic works, in which the certainty of his characters’ beliefs in definable identities and absolute truths is often surprisingly and completely deconstructed. Hwang began recording stories of his family at an early age. At ten, he composed a novel about his dying grandmother’s life memories, material which would become the basis for his 1996 drama, Golden Child.
Encouraged by his family, Hwang anticipated earning a law degree but quickly abandoned that idea in favor of the theatrical arts. His first play, F.O.B. (an acronym for “fresh off the boat”), premiered at Stanford University, where English major Hwang earned a B.A. in 1979. Following his graduation, Hwang taught writing courses at Menlo Park High School but soon left teaching in order to study theatrical history at the Yale School of Drama during 1980 to 1981. Hwang left Yale before completing his degree to seek a career as a playwright in New York, a decision that, for such a young man, was presciently correct. Although he never completed graduate studies, he would later receive honorary degrees from the American Conservatory of Theatre and Columbia College in Chicago. As a novice playwright, Hwang was mentored by Sam Shepard, whose works he emulated, and he began reading works by other twentieth-century playwrights, including Bertolt Brecht.
At the age of twenty-two, Hwang first experienced theatrical success when F.O.B. was performed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 1979. Produced Off-Broadway the following year, Hwang’s drama about the awkward assimilation of two Chinese American students into mainstream American culture received the prestigious Obie Award for best new play in 1981. The issues of Chinese American life presented in F.O.B. were further developed in Hwang’s early-1980’s plays Family Devotions and The Dance and the Railroad, the latter work about Chinese immigrants whose labors constructed the American cross-continental railroad. These plays mix Eastern and Western theatrical devices, a blending of oppositional styles that comically and poignantly reinforces the tenuous cross-cultural assimilation of his characters, a tension he would continue to explore in later works.
Hwang’s next theatrical endeavors were two Japanese one-acts, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice. They were showcased together in 1983 as Sound and Beauty. They are a departure from his earlier depictions of life for Chinese American immigrants, instead focusing on tragic love stories from Japanese lore. These stage tales are populated with samurai warriors and geishas who play against type, defying both gender and cultural stereotypes in the process, reversals that become a Hwang trademark. In the mid-1980’s Hwang continued writing for the stage, supported by a number of fellowships and grants. In 1984 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and, in 1985, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. By 1986 his work was appearing on both coasts: As the Crow Flies premiered in Los Angeles, and Rich Relations, a non-Asian drama rife with familiar issues including evangelical Christianity and familial dysfunction, was produced Off-Broadway. The latter play was one of Hwang’s few critical failures, earning the scorn of some reviewers.
Hwang did not reach national prominence until M. Butterfly was produced on Broadway in 1988. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the play won the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play, the John Gassner Award, and a Tony Award, cementing Hwang’s reputation at the age of thirty as a dominant force on the American stage. M. Butterfly was inspired by newspaper accounts of an actual espionage trial involving a French diplomat and a Chinese spy. Throughout his trial, the French diplomat held to his belief that the Chinese spy, revealed to be a man, was a woman. Into this tabloid-fodder, gender-bending love story, Hwang incorporated elements of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, thereby creating a theatrical interrogation of gender, sexuality, politics, and East-West relations. He later adapted M. Butterfly for film.
In the same year, Hwang’s first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof, was produced in Vienna, an aperture to Hwang’s dawning international reputation as a playwright of note. The opera depicts a woman who believes herself to have been abducted by aliens but who is hesitant to share her story with a disbelieving press and rejecting public. In 1992 Hwang wrote the lyrics for Glass’s opera The Voyage, which celebrates discovery.
Hwang’s 1992 Bondage continues to explore human identity but moves away from the playwright’s earlier concerns about immigrant cultural integrity and toward questions about the very validity of ethnic identity. In the play, a solitary actress portrays various races, including white, Asian, and African, but because she is wearing a mask, skin tone is never an indicator of her ethnic allegiances.
In 1996, Hwang’s juvenile novel was finally realized as a stage drama in Golden Child, a play narrated by a ten-year-old ghost. Focusing again on the chasm between Eastern and Western religious and political practices, the play features as its lead character a recent immigrant torn between his Chinese devotion to his three wives and his desire to embrace American Christianity, which mandates that he divorce two of them. The story won that year's Obie Award for outstanding play and was nominated for a Tony Award.
In the late 1990’s, Hwang began to adapt other writers’ works for the stage. His 1998 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) is equal parts folktale and social commentary, employing Freudian psychology to reinterpret the sundry dark creatures, including trolls, of the original. Like other Hwang works, it questions the indeterminate nature of human identity. Next Hwang approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 1996 to request permission, which he was granted, to re-adapt Flower Drum Song, based on the 1957 novel by C. Y. Lee. Intrigued since his teen years by the musical’s Asian love story, he was simultaneously troubled by racial stereotypes in the production. One of the changes Hwang made to the script, which he entirely rewrote, was to enhance and empower the role of the character Mei-Li, whom he believed was underdeveloped in the earlier adaptation. In his version, the mail-order bride who journeys to the United States to meet her groom is transformed into a political refugee escaping Communist China. Again, Hwang seeks to explore and explode racial mythologies, this time those inherited from the popular theatricals of his youth. For his efforts, the musical's book received a Tony nod.
In 2006, Tibet through the Red Box, his stage adaptation of Peter Sís's children's book, debuted. In producing the story for a live, young audience, Hwang amplified the political contexts of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia and Chinese-occupied Tibet and brought the narrator to life.
Shortly after Tibet, Hwang crafted a couple of comedies. The semiautobiographical Yellow Face (2008), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Obie Award winner, examines issues of political correctness and identity in art. Chinglish, which was set in China, earned a Drama Desk Award nomination. He also adapted the latter into a screenplay.
In the 2000s and 2010s, Hwang collaborated on several more operas and pieces of musical theater. He adapted the story of the Disney animated feature Tarzan into a 2006 Broadway musical. He wrote the libretto for composer Osvaldo Golijov's 2012 opera Ainandmar. A few years later he collaborated with composer Bright Sheng on Dream of the Red Chamber, basing the libretto on an eighteenth-century Chinese story. It premiered in San Francisco in 2016.
Hwang's biographical Kung Fu, which opened in February 2014, takes as its subject the renowned martial artist Bruce Lee living in the United States.
In 1987 Hwang cofounded both the Theatre Communications Group and the Stanford Asian American Theatre Group. He was named head of the playwriting program at the Columbia University School of the Arts in 2014. He has sat on the board of directors for the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America. In 2016, he became chair of the board of trustees of the American Theater Wing. He is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and Phi Beta Kappa. In 1994 he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and served through Clinton's second term in office.
In addition to awards for individual works, Hwang's decades of contribution to the theater world were recognized through the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist and the 2012 William Inge Inge Festival Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre Award.
Hwang’s four-year marriage to artist Ophelia Y. M. Chong ended in divorce in 1989. He married actress Kathryn Layng in 1993. The couple reside with their two children in New York City, where Hwang continues to write for the stage and screen.