Two plus months and a few snowstorms later, David Henry Hwang finally made it to Buffalo. The second speaker in Just Buffalo Literary Center’s 2014/2015 Babel Season, Hwang probably would have waited even longer if the elements necessitated. He’s that generous a human being. Artistic Director Barbara Cole illustrated such with an anecdote concerning a local teacher wishing on social media that she could take her class to Syracuse for a performance of the playwright’s Chinglish and his contacting her personally to offer answers to whatever questions her students might have reading it. Unsurprisingly, he focused his lecture around a sort of “how-to” education on what it takes to write a play for the numerous students in attendance. It was also, however, a metaphor for the multicultural metamorphosis our nation is undergoing—an artistic act itself.
For Hwang the oft-used sentiment “if you don’t fail you’re not working hard enough” has become mantra. With every misstep in his career, a new outlook on his craft was born. It was being told his early attempts at the medium were bad that his professor taught how crucial knowing the theater was to successfully writing for it. Receiving a litany of notes from a course led by luminaries such as Sam Shepherd taught how paramount criticism was, but also how important it was to weed through each comment and find what mattered personally to him. If not for these lessons he wouldn’t have had the courage to re-submit his debut FOB without revision to producer Joseph Papp despite him asking for one. Papp read an identical draft, declared it perfect, and Hwang’s career began.
While intriguing for his anecdotes, the ubiquity of that failure sentiment makes for a rather uninspired talk. Or at least it should have without Hwang’s own charisma and perfectly measured self-deprecation. The playwright is an entertaining speaker and one who has no qualms with admitting mistakes. His most profound insight of the night was the reason for them: his willingness to go places he doesn’t understand. He writes from the subconscious mind, allowing illogical impulses to occur so he can, for instance, turn a character in The Dance and the Railroad into a duck. This is how his characters are given life to move about as three-dimensional entities and not mere pawns in whatever plot he has crafted around them. And these impulses show him the topics/issues he actually cares about writing.
Ethnicity was a large part of Hwang’s talk too: the “inhuman” Asian stereotypes he watched on TV growing up; his Chinese-American upbringing making the theater’s penchant for hugs and praise an embarrassing reality he found “agonizingly wonderful”; and the truth in a statement like “all literature is ethnic literature” and “to be more specific in your writing is to be more universal”. As the world changes and the relationship between America and China heats up to position itself as a critical moment in Earth’s history, he sees the dynamic of his very identity as a worthy one to explore. Ideas about language/communication being faulty make up Chinglish; the self-referential autobiographical nature of Yellow Face provides endearing humor; and, in contrast, he admits the racial-identity-as-farce aspect of Face Value wasn’t as “hilarious” as he initially thought.
The latter revelation like all errors in judgment he’s made or not unsuccessful work he’s written proves that he was born to be a playwright. He if can look at each stumble without regret for taking the journey, it cements the fact this is his passion, vocation, and mission in life. And through this art he can express his beliefs and thoughts on our ever-changing planet even if it’s relegated only to the theater. Culture matters to Hwang like it should to us all. Altering perception and the structures preventing equality has to start somewhere so ensuring what he writes decreases the statistic declaring how 80% of Broadway actors are white is a success. It’s a piece of the puzzle that will hopefully help facilitate the paradigm shift in motion right now.
Beyond these over-arching concepts, Hwang also shared delightful stories about the genesis of M. Butterfly, his protesting Miss Saigon‘s casting of Jonathan Pryce as an Asian, and more. He also gave an inside look at his writing process through three steps: 1) Finding a question he can explore in order to understand (theme); 2) Creating a rough beginning and end to allow himself latitude for impulses in the middle (plot); and 3) Choosing a play or playwright he enjoys to base his work’s form on. Add advice for those choosing play writing as a career needing to embrace collaboration and Hwang goes beyond his central theme’s unoriginality. He ultimately proves unique enough in his own right to make any clichés appear fresh and from the heart.
Babel 2014/2015 Season continues with:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (Nigeria) – March 26, 2015 – Americanah
Patti Smith (United States) – April 17, 2015 – Just Kids
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