PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With David Henry Hwang

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With David Henry Hwang One of the questions to enter the theatre gossip mill in the next couple weeks may very well be: "Are you in the new David Henry Hwang play Yellow Face?"
David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Hwang's new comedy, which he called a "stage mockumentary," contains, as characters, a few dozen actual theatre professionals, both living and dead. Among the Rialto figures to utter lines are: actors Jane Krakowski, Mark Linn-Baker, B.D. Wong and Ron Silver; producers Cameron Mackintosh and Stuart Ostrow; journalist Frank Rich, George Will and Michael Riedel; former Actors' Equity executive director Alan Eisenberg; as well as the late theatre owner Bernard Jacobs and late casting director Vinnie Liff. And, of course, David Henry Hwang himself, who is cast in the central role of this part-fact, part-fiction drama about the playwright's ordeals with racial identity and racial justice over the past couple decades. The story begins with the famous flap over Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce's casting as a Eurasian character in Miss Saigon and continues with the train wreck of Hwang's "mistaken racial identity" farce Face Value, which famously closed in previews on Broadway. Hwang talked to Playbill.com about Hwang the playwright, Hwang the character, Hwang the Asian-American role model, and what the future might hold for all three.

Playbill.com: What is the provenance of this play? What made you write it?
David Henry Hwang: I guess ever since the failure of Face Value, which was a comedy of mistaken racial identity, I always thought the story was sort of a good idea. But Face Value was more of a Feydeau sort of farce, and I felt I needed to find some other form for it. Starting around 2000, there were a couple Asian-American filmmakers who put me in their movies playing myself. Then I saw I Am My Own Wife and [playwright] Doug Wright put himself [as a character] in that play. I started thinking that it might be fun to use a sort of stage mockumentary structure, combining truth with fiction, in order to do a comedy of mistaken racial identity.

Playbill.com: Regarding the true part and the fictional part, is the character of Marcus — a white actor who passes himself off as Asian-American, in order to land a part in one of your plays — completely fictional?
DHH: The Marcus character is basically fictional. But, like all fictional characters, there are some ways in which he is a composite of some actual instances that I was aware of where a white actor was mistakenly cast as an Asian.

Playbill.com: You knew of instances like that?
DHH: Yeah.

Playbill.com: Did any of them involve you and your plays?
DHH: Um, I am not going to answer that question. There's a certain amount of what's true and what's fictional in the play that I'm going to keep under my hat, because I hope that part of the method of the play is that you don't know. It's starts to be a slippery slope if I say what's true and what's not. Playbill.com: You are the central character in Yellow Face. Is it difficult to write for a character based on yourself, or is it really easy?
DHH: You know, in a sense, authors always write autobiographical characters. The only difference here is that I actually name the character after myself. In a funny way, I found that kind of liberating. Once I named the character after myself, it was easier for me to make him a character, to feel comfortable with his fictional elements. It's sort of counter-intuitive. But that's how it worked for me.

Playbill.com: The David Henry Hwang in the play is not a terribly flattering doppelganger all the time. He's conscientious and intelligent, but also shallow, deceptive and self-involved.
DHH: (Laughs) He's probably the butt of most of the jokes in the play. I think I wanted to write a character that is flawed, that has issues about keeping up his own image, a certain amount of vanity. I did that for a lot of reasons. One was, I thought it was fun to have a character who is associated with being a kind of ethnic role model, but who's very self-involved with that image. That's one of the things the play's about, how we play race, whether on stage or in life. And I think it's something I haven't seen that much. Writers tend to tip-toe around a little when it comes to characters who are ethnic role models, because we feel we might be being offensive if we point our their weaknesses. By making the character myself, there was no one to offend but me.

Playbill.com: Are some of these flaws your flaws? Or is it, again, this mix of fact and fiction?
DHH: I think it is a mix of fact and fiction, but, yeah, of course I'm concerned with my image, I'm capable of vanity, I'm capable of deception.

Playbill.com: There are dozens of characters directly based on real people in the theatre business, both living and dead. Do these people know they're in the play? Did you have to get their permission?
DHH: Just about everybody who is in the play, who is in a fictional scene, I've gotten their permission. There are a couple cases in the play where there are scenes where I was present, which I have recreated. I didn't necessarily get those people's permission.

Playbill.com: Such as the long scene near the end where you have the contentious meeting with the New York Times reporter. His name is specifically not mentioned, though it's fairly easy to figure out who he is.
DHH: Yeah, such as.

Playbill.com: So that meeting actually happened to you?
DHH: I'm going to take the Fifth on that one.

Playbill.com: At the end of the play, when your character is talking to the audience, the idea comes across that this play is a turning for either the character, or for you, and that from now on you're going to be going in a different direction as a writer. To what extent are we supposed to take that at face value?
DHH: So to speak. (Laughs) I do feel that a lot of the socio-political premises that I began my career with are either no longer that useful, or I'm no longer interested in them. For instance, the notion of multi-culturalism. I've been fortunate to do what I do for a while. When my play FOB was first done in the same theatre, in the Martinson, in 1980, multi-culturalism was still a relatively new idea. And at this point, I feel like multi-culturalism as a concept is really in the culture and it's been great in some ways and it's been flawed in some ways. You look at Bush's cabinet in his first term, and that was the most multi-cultural cabinet in American history. It was also, in my opinion, a really bad cabinet. Personally, at this point in my life, I'm more interested in internationalism. I feel like it's no longer sufficient to say we just have to look at what's going on between different groups within our national borders. I think we need to apply some of that thinking to what's going on around the world, and our relationship as Americans to cultures outside our borders. I do feel like I've maybe moved on from many of the things that I was believing and advocating at the beginning at my career.