FOUR decades had passed since David Henry Hwang last stepped foot in the Philippines — a time well spent to become a preeminent Asian-American playwright, screenwriter and librettist.

Hwang was born in Los Angeles, California to Chinese immigrants in 1957. He graduated from Stanford University in 1979 and attended the Yale School of Drama in 1980. He also holds honorary degrees from Columbia College in New York and The American Conservatory Theatre.

While still a college freshman, Hwang saw several plays and eventually decided to try writing his own. And he has never stopped ever since, “I just read and see as many plays as I could,” he recalled.

At 22, Hwang considered it a very lucky break when FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), his very first play, got picked by the US National Playwrights’ Club, which showcased new writers and plays, for a month-long workshop.

He attended the workshop for four weeks along with 12 other writers. They were taught by professionals from around New York on how to rewrite their works. Soon after, Joseph Papp, who founded the Shakespearean Theater Workshop, and who, according to Hwang, was probably the most important American theatrical producer for the last half of the twentieth century, got interested in producing his play.

He read his work with Papp, who gave him some pointers and notes. At this stage in Hwang’s life, he was able to grasp the concept of constructive criticisms. Hwang realized that he had to listen to everybody.

“It could be anyone…because every now and then, someone will say something which really does resonate with me.”

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FOB premiered in New York at the Stanford Asian American Theater Project in 1979, and bought him an OBIE (Off-Broadway Theater) Award in 1980.

FOB tells of the “fresh off the boat” newcomer immigrants from China who came to America. Three main characters portray the conflict between established Asians in America and FOBs.

Hwang is closely linked with the Yutivos, the clan where his grandmother came from. And for Hwang’s relatives in Cebu, the homecoming is also a great opportunity for his clan to have its very first family reunion. Hwang is a proud member of the Yu family, from which the story of the Golden Child (see main story) is taken.

No instant success

Hwang is best known for his masterpiece M. Butterfly, which premiered in Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on March 20, 1988. M. Butterfly, which catapulted Hwang to literary stardom, is about Rene Gallimard, a diplomat assigned at the French embassy in China who falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer, Song Liling, whom he thought was a woman. Actually, Song Liling is a man masquerading as a woman in order to spy for the Chinese government. Unknown to Gallimard, Song uses his relationship with him to reel in vital information.

A play is not born perfect. Behind the literary milestone lies all the hardwork that goes with success, Hwang said.

Before a play gets staged, it has to go through revisions, which aid Hwang in the conceptualization of a play’s story. Thus, it somehow explains Hwang’s love of previews.

“M. Butterfly was not an instant success. It had gone through major revisions upon its first showing before it swept theater awards,” Hwang said, referring to the play that earned him recognition as a playwright back in 1988.

Doyenne of letters

From there, Hwang learned a lot about revising a play. One part of the writing process that he considers essential is making the first draft and consequently, so is the rewriting of the story. “As I get older, rewriting is easier,” he said.

He explained that he eventually learned where to put the right words at the right scene of a play. Thus, he emphasized the importance of writing the first draft.

Hwang used to write a play in just three weeks or three days even.

Drawing a distinction between aesthetic criticism and content criticism, Hwang explained that the former eyes the artistic and visual sides of production. The latter, content criticism, reviews the story of the play itself. And for him, that is where the audience gets involved.

“If it’s [criticism] about an issue on or a content of the play, I think that’s interesting,” he said.

He pointed out that the audiences are the ones perceiving the work, and that they have the prerogative to either accept or reject the story. “They are the final pieces in the collaboration,” he said.

Apart from that, Hwang explained that he learns a lot about his play after he hears them being read for the first time from which rewrites are afterwards made. He also trusts the audience’s reactions and opinions toward his plays.

For a theme, he usually starts with a question. He tries to reconcile his story with something he finds hard to understand. Though some say that starting a play with a question might sound didactic, Hwang believes in it because it works for him.

The true challenge

Hwang said that a story’s flow must move forward and always introduce new things. And in redefining a plot, the writer gets to go to places with his story. “Writing a play is like a road trip,” he said.

And finally, there is the structure. It is all about modeling plays on other plays. According to Hwang, a play must make apparent who the writer is writing about and after whom the work is modeled.

For him, this is the stage wherein a writer tries to write something that has life in it.

“You have to dig into something deep, and get your fingers dirty, and get in to the mud.” A.R.D.S. Bordado


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