Double-Talk

By Als, Hilton | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Double-Talk


Als, Hilton, The New Yorker


First-generation American writers often have two stories to tell. There's the story of their inspiration and the quest for a discipline to give form to their imaginings. Then there's a more constricted tale: the arrival myth. How did my parents get here from Hungary or Nigeria or China, say, and at what cost? The children of immigrants sometimes feel a kind of moral responsibility to address their parents' struggle. And that sense of duty can saddle the work with a reverence that makes it feel ponderous or didactic, drained of the very thing that moved them to write in the first place: imagination. So it's especially exciting to find first-generation American artists who don't traffic in guilt or remorse, and who can laugh at their ethnicity and their families' trials without ridiculing them. The early plays of the thirty-seven-year-old Korean-American theatre artist Young Jean Lee, for instance, are filled with the comedy and confusion of being an outsider in American culture. The urge to fit in is also the source of much of the humor in the work of the playwright David Henry Hwang, who grew up in Los Angeles in the sixties, with Chinese-immigrant parents. An alumnus of Stanford University and of the Yale School of Drama, Hwang writes plays whose conventional form and naturalistic tone are offset by his interest in fantasy and farce. He is a warm-blooded satirist, both at home and not at home in the Asian and white worlds that he writes about, and his work is at its most insightful when, in an act of perverse ventriloquism, he analyzes China and the lives of Chinese-Americans through Western eyes.

But although Hwang's father, Henry Yuan Hwang, was supportive of his son's choice of career, he was not his biggest fan; Hwang has said that his father, who died in 2005, "embraced" only two of his more than a dozen plays: "F.O.B." (1980), and his adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (2002). (Hwang pere didn't warm to Hwang's most successful work, the 1988 play "M. Butterfly," which made him the first Asian-American to win a Tony for Best Play.) In fact, a character based on Hwang's father appears as one of the voices of dissent in his fabulous 2007 play, "Yellow Face," which Hwang called "a mix of fact and fiction . . . about a character based on me." The title refers to the controversy surrounding the casting of the white actor Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role for the 1991 Broadway staging of "Miss Saigon." In "Yellow Face," Hwang's alter ego--D.H.H.--is enlisted to join in a protest against the casting. D.H.H. has to deal not only with the insults of "Miss Saigon" 's producer ("This is a tempest in an Oriental teapot") but with the racism of the script itself, which, strangely, doesn't seem to bother his father, with whom he has this telephone exchange:

H.Y.H.: But you been smart. Keeping your name in the newspapers. That's good, son.

D.H.H.: You mean, all that "Miss Saigon" stuff? Thank God, it's finally starting to die down.

H.Y.H.: But so many articles on you. Free publicity! . . . When I was working in a laundry, could I ever have dreamed? . . . I'm telling you, this is the land of opportunity. And that "Miss Saigon"--such a big hit.

D.H.H.: Don't remind me, O.K.?

H.Y.H.: Looks so beautiful. All those girls--classy.

D.H.H.: They're half naked! Playing prostitutes!

H.Y.H.: But they're classy prostitutes. . . . Dave, you should do something like that. Is that what your new play is about? "Madame Butterfly" set in Vietnam?

D.H.H.: How could I possibly--it's already been done!

H.Y.H.: See, I'm just so ignorant about these things.

D.H.H.: Besides, I already wrote a play criticizing "Madame Butterfly"!

H.Y.H.: What play was that?

D.H.H.: "M. Butterfly"!

H.Y.H.: Oh, right, right. You know, your "M. Butterfly"--that play is a little weird. . . . When I come to New York next month, can you get me some tickets?

D.H.H.: To "M. …

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