David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang
Birth name David Henry Hwang / 黃哲倫
Born August 15, 1957 (1957-08-15) (age 54)
Origin Los Angeles, California
Occupations Playwright, Screenwriter, Television Writer, Librettist, Lyricist
Years active 1980–present
David Henry Hwang
Chinese 黃哲倫

David Henry Hwang (Chinese: 黃哲倫; pinyin: Huáng Zhélún; born August 11, 1957) is an American playwright who has risen to prominence as the preeminent Asian American dramatist in the U.S.

He was born in Los Angeles, California and was educated at the Yale School of Drama and Stanford University. His first play was produced at the Okada House dormitory at Stanford and he briefly studied playwriting with Sam Shepard and María Irene Fornés.



Isolationalist-Nationalist Phase/Trilogy of Chinese America

Hwang's early plays concerned the role of the Chinese American and Asian American in the modern day world. His first play, the Obie Award-winning FOB, depicts the contrasts and conflicts between established Asian Americans and "Fresh Off the Boat" newcomer immigrants. The play was developed by the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and premiered in 1980 Off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. Papp went on to produce four more of Hwang's plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama The Dance and the Railroad, which tells the story of a former Chinese opera star working as a coolie laborer in the nineteenth century, and Family Devotions, a darkly comic take on the effects of Western religion on a Chinese family. Those three plays added up to a "Trilogy of Chinese America" as the author described.

Branching Out/National Success

After this, Papp also produced the show Sound and Beauty, the omnibus title to two Hwang one-act plays set in Japan. At this time, Hwang started to work on projects for the small screen. A television movie, Blind Alleys, written by Hwang and Frederic Kimball and starring Pat Morita and Cloris Leachman, was produced.

His next play, Rich Relations, was his first to feature non-Asian characters. It premiered at the Second Stage Theatre in New York and, though not a success, did prepare him for his work on his best-known play, M. Butterfly, for which he won a Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, the John Gassner Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play. It was also his second play to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play is a deconstruction of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. The play is also loosely based on news reports of the relationship between a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, and Shi Pei Pu, a male Chinese opera singer who purportedly convinced Boursicot that he was a woman throughout their twenty-year relationship. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and made Hwang the first Asian American to win the Tony Award for Best Play.

Work Post-Butterfly

The success of M. Butterfly prompted Hwang's interests in many other different directions, including work for opera, film, and the musical theatre. Hwang became a frequent collaborator as a librettist with the world-renowned composer Philip Glass.

Additionally, one of M. Butterfly's Broadway producers, David Geffen, spear-headed a film version of the play, which was directed by David Cronenberg. Hwang also wrote an original script, Golden Gate, which was produced by American Playhouse. Hwang wrote an early draft of a screenplay based upon A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel Possession, which was originally scheduled for director Sydney Pollack. Years later, director/playwright Neil LaBute and Laura Jones would collaborate on the script for a 2002 film.

Still, throughout the 1990s, Hwang continued to write for the stage, including short plays for the famed Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and Golden Child, which received its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in 1996. Golden Child later became his second Broadway venture and won the 1997 Obie Award for its Off-Broadway production and gave Hwang his second Tony nomination.

Return to Broadway with Disney and Rodgers & Hammerstein

In the new millennium, Hwang had two Broadway successes back-to-back. He was asked by director Robert Falls to help co-write the book for the musical Aida (based upon the opera by Giuseppe Verdi), which, in an earlier format, had failed in regional theatre tryouts. Hwang and Falls re-wrote a significant portion of the book (by Linda Woolverton) and Aida (with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice) opened in 2000 to great box office business.

His next project was a radical revision of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, II, and Joseph Fields' musical Flower Drum Song. Although successful when introduced in the 1950s and early 1960s, it had become dated after the Civil Rights Movement redefined the viability of stereotypical portrayals of Asian American communities. Though it had never been a full critical success relative to other Rodgers and Hammerstein productions such as South Pacific and The King and I, it inspired another generation of Asian Americans to re-imagine the musical. Adapted from the novel The Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee, it tells the story of a culture clash with a Chinese family living in San Francisco. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization allowed Hwang to significantly rework the plot, while retaining character names and songs. His version —both an homage to the original and a modern re-thinking— won him his third Tony nomination. Though Flower Drum Song is often called the first musical with an all-Asian cast, it was the 2002 revival of the play which was finally produced with an all-Asian cast of actor-singers. The original production had cast many non-Asians in leading roles, including Caucasians and an African-American (Juanita Hall). The revival went on to a national tour.

Back to the Public

Hwang's 2007 play Yellow Face centers on his one failed Broadway experiment Face Value, which closed in previews on Broadway back in the early 1990s and was written in response to a controversy about the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon. Face Value, which also included music and lyrics for a musical-within-a-play by Hwang, lost millions of dollars and was a stumbling block in the careers of Hwang and producer Stuart Ostrow.

Hwang decided to turn the experience into a semi-autobiographical play which pits him as the main character in a media farce about mistaken racial identity, which was (oddly enough) one of the main plots of Face Value.

Yellow Face premiered in Los Angeles in 2007 at the Mark Taper Forum as a co-production with East West Players and then moved Off-Broadway to the Joseph Papp Public Theater, which was so important in Hwang's earlier work. There, it enjoyed an extended run, won Hwang his third Obie Award in Playwriting, and made him a third-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Hwang speaks about Yellow Face in this event at Colgate University [1]. Hwang also wrote a new short play, The Great Helmsman for their night of plays Ten.

Recent Work

Hwang has continued to work steadily in the world of opera and musical theatre and has written for children's theatre as well. Hwang co-wrote the English language libretto for an operatic adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland with music (and part of the libretto) by the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, which received its world premiere at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007 and was released on DVD in 2008. Hwang wrote the libretto to Howard Shore's opera The Fly, based on David Cronenberg's 1986 film of the same name; the opera premiered on July 2, 2008 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France with Cronenberg as director and Plácido Domingo conducting.[1] Hwang was most recently represented on Broadway as the librettist for Tarzan, a musical based on a film by Walt Disney Pictures.

Hwang also collaborated on the multi-media event Icarus at the Edge of Time, adapted from Brian Greene's novel. It also featured music by Philip Glass and a film by "Al and Al." The piece premiered as part of the World Science Festival. His most recent short play, A Very DNA Reunion was written for the evening of plays The DNA Trail, which was conceived by Jamil Khoury and premiered at the historic Chicago Temple Building.

After its major success in Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Chinglish, written by David Henry Hwang, quickly made its way to Broadway in October 2011. Chinglish was largely inspired by his frequent visits to China and his observations of interactions between Chinese and American people.[2]


Hwang is also at work on three new musicals —Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, with music and lyrics by David Yazbeck, Pretty Dead Girl with music and lyrics by Anne-Marie Milazzo, and Where or When, a dance musical by Christopher Gattelli and others— as well two plays—an original, Chinglish (due to open on Broadway October 27, 2011, following a successful run in Chicago[3]), and a play on the memoirs of Chinese-British actress Tsai Chin entitled Daughter of Shanghai.[4] In an interview at the 2010 San Diego Asian Film Festival, Hwang mentioned that he was interested in creating an Asian American television series.[5]


Hwang's work for the stage includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, The House of Sleeping Beauties (adapted from Yasunari Kawabata's novella House of the Sleeping Beauties), The Sound of a Voice, As the Crow Flies, Rich Relations, M. Butterfly, Bondage, Face Value, Trying to Find Chinatown, Bang Kok, Golden Child, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt (co-written with Stephan Muller), the Humana Festival T(ext) Shirt play Merchandising, Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet, the children's play Tibet Through the Red Box (based upon Peter Sis' book), The Great Helmsman, Yellow Face, and A Very DNA Reunion.

His music-theatre work includes the texts for Philip Glass' 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, The Voyage, and The Sound of a Voice, the book for Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida (co-written by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls), the Walt Disney Company's theatrical version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan (with music and lyrics by Phil Collins), the libretti for Bright Sheng's The Silver River, Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar, Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland (libretto co-written by Chin), and Howard Shore's The Fly as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.

He has also written a number of screenplays, including David Cronenberg's adaptation of M. Butterfly, John Madden's Golden Gate, and Neil LaBute's Possession (co-written with Laura Jones and LaBute, adapted from the novel by A. S. Byatt). He also wrote the teleplays for Blind Alleys (with Frederic Kimball) and the NBC mini-series The Monkey King (more commonly known as The Lost Empire), directed by Peter MacDonald. Hwang served as an assistant on the documentary Forbidden City, U. S. A. Along with Tristine Rainer, Hwang contributed story material to the television film Forbidden Nights, which was written by Rainer and based upon Judith Shapiro's article "The Rocky Course of Love in China." He served as a script advisor for the film Picture Bride. In 2003, Susan Hoffman directed a film adaptation of The Sound of a Voice entitled Sound of a Voice starring Lane Nishikawa.

As another extension of his interests, Hwang penned the texts for three dance pieces: Ruby Shang's Yellow Punk Dolls (live) and Dances in Exile (presented on Alive from Off Center; starring B. D. Wong and directed by Howard Silver) as well as Maureen Fleming's After Eros [2] (with music by Philip Glass). With Brian Greene, he adapted the novel Icarus at the Edge of Time for composer Glass and filmmakers "Al and Al." He also co-wrote the Prince song "Solo" for his album Come.

In 1999, Hwang starred in a short film by Greg Pak called Asian Pride Porn, which combined humor and serious social commentary to parody the Asian fetish and the prevalence of Asian fetish pornography. As himself, he has appeared in the documentary films Hollywood Chinese, Happy Birthday Oscar Wilde, Literary Visions, The Chinese Americans, and Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Stories. Hwang often contributes forewords and introductions to many books, including Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Asian American Drama: 9 Plays from the Multiethnic Landscape, Robot Stories and Other Screenplays by Greg Pak, a reprint of C. Y. Lee's The Flower Drum Song, and Karin Aguilar-San Juan's The State of Asian America: Activisim and Resistance in the 1990s. Fantasy author Kathryn Wesley wrote a novelization of Hwang's teleplay for The Lost Empire under the title The Monkey King.


He has been awarded numerous grants, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. He has been honored with awards from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Association for Asian Pacific American Artists, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, the East West Players, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the Center for Migration Studies, the Asian American Resource Workshop, the China Institute, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In 1998, the nation's oldest Asian American theatre company, the East West Players, christened its new mainstage The David Henry Hwang Theatre. Hwang was featured in an autobiographical series by Boise State University with a summary of his early work, as part of the Western Writers Series, written by Douglas Street.

Mr. Hwang sits on the boards of the Dramatists Guild, Young Playwrights Inc., and the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. He conducts interviews on arts-related topics for the national PBS cable television show Asian America. From 1994–2001, he served by appointment of President Bill Clinton on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

David Henry Hwang holds honorary degrees from Columbia College Chicago and The American Conservatory Theatre. He lives in New York City with his wife, actress Kathryn Layng, and their children, Noah David and Eva Veanne.

Selected Published Work

  • Broken Promises, New York: Avon, 1983. (out-of-print; includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, and The House of Sleeping Beauties)
  • M. Butterfly, New York: Plume, 1988. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.; audio version available from L. A. Theatre Works; film version available from Warner Bros.)
  • 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1989. (Original Music Recording available from Virgin Records)
  • Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1990. (includes Hwang's As the Crow Flies and The Sound of a Voice)
  • FOB and Other Plays, New York: New American Library, 1990. (out-of-print; includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, The House of Sleeping Beauties, The Sound of a Voice, Rich Relations and 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof)
  • Golden Child, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1998. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.)
  • Trying to Find Chinatown: The Selected Plays, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. (includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, The Sound of a Voice, The House of Sleeping Beauties, Bondage, The Voyage, and Trying to Find Chinatown)
  • Humana Festival 1999: The Complete Plays, New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, 1999. (include Hwang's Merchandising)
  • Rich Relations, New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2002.
  • Flower Drum Song, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by David Henry Hwang; based upon the libretto by Oscar Hammerstein, II and Joseph Fields and the novel The Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee; New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. (Broadway Cast Recording available from DRG)
  • 2004: The Best Ten-Minute Plays for Two Actors, New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, 2003. (includes Hwang's Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet)
  • Peer Gynt (with Stephan Muller), based upon the play by Henrik Ibsen; New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2006.
  • Tibet Through the Red Box, based upon the book by Peter Sis; New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2006.
  • 2007: The Best Ten-Minute Plays for Three or More Actors, New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, 2008. (includes Hwang's The Great Helmsman)
  • Yellow Face; Theatre Communications Group, 2009. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.)


External links

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