There’s a new leader in town. As of June 28, Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang is the Chairman of the Board of the American Theatre Wing. Along with administering the annual Tony Awards, the Wing supports theatre through awards, grants and programs, fundraising and educating. The Wing works towards building theatre’s future.
Hwang’s predecessor, Tony-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, was “an incredibly active Chairman and brought a lot of innovations,” acknowledges Hwang. From large initiatives like the Wing’s partnership with The Village Voice to co-present the Obie Awards beginning in 2014, to the spontaneous creation of silver ribbons to pay tribute to the Orlando victims at this year’s Tony Awards, Long was a hands-on leader. Now, Hwang comes to the table with his own wealth of knowledge and experience.
As any working theatre artist can tell you, diversity is an issue that has long plagued the industry and continues to dominate the conversation about where the business is and where we are going.
The issue has been on Hwang’s mind since childhood. “Growing up in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s, if I knew there was going to be a play or a movie with Asian characters—of which there weren’t very many anyway—I would actually go out of my way not to watch it, because I knew … the portrayal would make me feel bad,” Hwang says. “[I knew] there would be [a] disjunction between what I’d see on a TV show or a movie, and the person I felt myself to be on the inside.”
With his appointment, he has a platform to address those issues head-on. In his new role, he hopes to “embrace….[the] opportunity to try to move the needle forward for many different groups in our society, so that we do have theatre that’s more extended.”
Not that he hasn’t done that already. His plays, including FOB, Yellow Face, Chinglish, and the Tony-winning M. Butterfly (with which he became the first Asian-American playwright to win the Best Play Tony), all address the hardships faced by Asian-Americans living in America and offer poignant commentary on conflicts with people of other races. It’s all in an effort to shed light on the diversity issue, he says, and “trying to bring characters and stories to the stage that haven’t been traditionally told in American theatre.”
This past Broadway season was a banner year in terms of diversity. (“We were really fortunate in that way,” says Hwang.) But at the same time, “It’s…kind of random in terms of what plays get produced any given year…. At the Wing, we’re not producers, so … we have no influence on [those decisions].” With such upcoming productions as Dear Evan Hansen, Holiday Inn, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Hwang acknowledges, “we may or may not see that type of inclusion this year.”
Hwang intends to keep the topic at the forefront. A Board member since 2009, Hwang also served as Head of the Wing’s Diversity Committee last year, in an effort to “get the [diversity] movement started.”
On some level, it seems to have worked—evident by the fact that the new roster of Advisory Board Members includes such names as Sergio Trujillo, Lucy Liu, Liesl Tommy and Alia Jones-Harvey.
We’ve seen historic progress on Broadway as well: this year, Tonys in all four musical acting categories were awarded exclusively to African-American performers—just one day before Ali Ewoldt debuted as the first Asian-American performer to portray The Phantom of the Opera’s Christine Daaé.
But despite this forward movement, Hwang acknowledges there’s still a long road ahead. Wing President and CEO Heather Hitchens, meanwhile, knows Hwang will rise to the challenge. As a playwright, Hwang describes himself as "somebody who understands how a show gets put together from the very beginning" and who works "with a group of artists….to help [me] realize [my] vision and bring it to life.” This will certainly help him in his new leadership role, as will his past experience serving on the Board. “To have somebody that understands the intricacies and the importance of that is [fantastic],” adds Hitchens.
And Hwang’s agenda isn’t limited to enhancing diversity; he’s also got his mind set on improving the Wing’s exposure. “A lot of the important [theatrical] activities in this country … happen Off-Broadway [or] regionally,” he says. “I want to [address] this issue of: ‘How does the Wing become more relevant, and provide greater support for theaters across the country?’”
One thing’s for sure: Hwang, whose tenure began with the announcement of his appointment on June 28, is fully aware of the responsbility that lies ahead. But for now, he’s taking it one day at a time. “I feel like it’s this great, iconic legacy to try to continue and to build on…. I’m going to try to do my best.”
View Highlights From the 2016 Tony Awards, administered by the American Theatre Wing:
Matt Smith is a writer and theatre enthusiast based in New York. For more visit MattSmithTheatre.com.