Understanding David Henry Hwang

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

David Henry Hwang is our best-known and most successful Asian-American playwright. Born in California in 1957 to assimilated immigrant parents, neither of whom spoke Chinese at home, Hwang did not explore his ethnic roots until he made a trip to the Philippines to visit his ailing grandmother, who sat him down and started telling stories about his Chinese ancestors. To preserve that history he turned her stories into a ninety-page history which he distributed to his family. “It was well received. I suppose that was the first writing I ever did.”

He went on from there to write some outstanding contemporary plays: FOB, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, FAMILY DEVOTIONS and RICH RELATIONS, to name a few. His biggest commercial success was M. BUTTERFLY, which won a Tony on Broadway, was produced around the world, and was turned into film starring John Lone and Jeremy Irons.

Hwang has also written the librettos for such musicals and operas as FLOWER DRUM SONG and THE VOYAGE (music by Philip Glass).

His latest play, KUNG FU, about Bruce Lee, will have its world premiere later this year.

DAVID HENRY WHANG, by William C. Boles, not only provides details about Whang’s life but goes deeply into his play-writing process, showing how the theme of identify figures strongly in his work. Boles also analyzes the importance of sexuality, gender, culture and religion in Whang’s plays.

“With his professed new focus on internationalization, Whang opens up vast new possibilities to explore as the world’s people grow closer,” Boles writes. “The divide between East and West is smaller than it has ever been before, providing a treasure trove of rich material. No doubt, in future works, Hwang, with his keen eye for examining our lives, will revel in exploring the constantly evolving notions of ethnicity, citizenship, and, most importantly, identity in both the East and West.”

(The University of South Carolina Press, 800-768-2500 or uscpress.com)