It is a question that most Americans struggle with at some point in their lives: how far to assimilate, to conform to the notion of what it means to be an American at the expense of their own culture, their own heritage, their own identity?
Eng Tieng-Bin, the protagonist of David Henry Hwang's Golden Child (at Broadway's Longacre Theatre), is a Chinese businessman who has spent considerable time in the West, and who longs to lead a more modern life. The time is 1918, and Tieng-Bin has just returned home to his three wives and his daughter. Keenly aware of his own history and traditions, of his responsibility to his ancestors, he is nonetheless on the verge of converting to Christianity and becoming an "individual" -- a word only recently introduced into the Chinese vocabulary. But he understands that if he rejects the past, his decision will have serious consequences for his family -- polygamy, for starters, is taboo in Christianity -- and on future generations. Although Golden Child takes place in a bygone era and a foreign culture, Tieng-Bin's dilemma is timeless and boundless.
"In a funny kind of way, the play isn't Chinese at all," says James Lapine, who has directed Golden Child with his customary elegance, insight and visual acumen. "It's universal, and that's what most attracted and intrigued me. I also love the relationship to the dead and ghosts and, being Jewish, the notion of guilt. What also struck me was what David has to say about change. All these things really spoke to me."
Golden Child premiered two years ago at the Public Theater and has continued to evolve in subsequent productions around the country and in Singapore. The play was inspired by interviews Hwang conducted with his grandmother when he was ten years old. "I'm not sure why I did those interviews," he says. "In retrospect, all I can think of is that even at the age of ten, growing up as an Asian-American in Southern California, perhaps I felt a need to put myself in some sort of context, to understand more about my past. I wrote it all down in a 90-page novel, which I still have, and I used the novel as source material when I began writing this script. Most of the big plot points in the play actually happened."
Framing the play is the inner conflict of Tieng-Bin's grandson Andrew, a writer. Andrew and his wife are expecting their first child, and he is trying to make peace with his family history and his grandfather's conversion to Christian fundamentalism, which he has long since rejected. He is visited by the ghost of his mother, who urges him to embrace his past as she relates the story of Tieng-Bin and his wives and child.
"I stopped being a Christian when I was in college, and that has always been a difficult thing for me," says Hwang. "It was important for me to go back and try to understand my history. I'd been raised to be very assimilated. I didn't place much value on my ethnicity. Then I went through a period in college and right afterwards, where I was only interested in working with other Asians. I moved past that, but it was very good for me to get back in touch with my roots. Having said that, I think it's then important to move on. I think that people today think of assimilation in terms of being able to deal with the larger culture and hold on to aspects of your heritage. Whereas I think two generations ago, assimilation meant getting rid of your own heritage." Those who saw Golden Child at the Public will recognize the structure and the story, but will also discover much that is different. The most obvious change is the role of Tieng-Bin, who was originally conceived as being in his early 30s and is now a more mature man, played by the remarkable Randall Duk Kim. "What I like about Randy -- and it's another way I relate to the play -- is that he's a guy in mid-life making a big, mid-life change," says Lapine. "He's someone who has reached the point where he looks at his life and says, 'This is where I am, and I can either stay here or take the leap and do something different.' When you have a guy who's 32 doing that, the story doesn't have the same weight -- although probably in 1918, 32 was middle-aged."
According to both Hwang and Lapine, the play has grown tighter, clearer, more focused. One major scene -- now the central event in Act I -- has been added, and there are many more subtle changes in the writing. During the play's most recent stop, in San Francisco, Lapine incorporated some ghost figures and stage craft inspired by Chinese theatre techniques. "I avoided that initially because it seemed a little cliche," he says. "But now I think it gives the play an ambience that's priceless."
For Hwang, the play's long journey to Broadway has helped him clarify his own attitude toward his family history. "Change happens, and it brings about both good and bad," he says. "The play refuses to take a definitive position on Tieng-Bin's decision. One has to do what one believes, even though it may end up hurting others, even yourself. I think Tieng-Bin was very well meaning. In a way what he did was incredibly brave and difficult. Was he right or wrong? I think he made the choice that was necessary for him, and I respect that choice. I also see where it had some grievous consequences."