Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang to discuss themes of identity

Courtesy of Lia Chang

By Anna Sadovskaya, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published January 13, 2012

Heralded by publications like Time Magazine as one of 2011’s best plays, “Chinglish” has been said to captivate its audience with witty lines and comedic exchanges. Written by playwright David Henry Hwang, the show continues its run on the Broadway stage, and Hwang has traveled to the University to talk about his newest hit and the life of a playwright.

A discussion with David Henry Hwang


Today at 4:30 p.m.
Michigan League, Vandenberg Room
Free


“I saw (“Chinglish”) last October, and I was really very impressed because the premise of it is how things can get lost in the process of translation,” said Joseph Lam, director of the Confucius Institute and professor of Musicology at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “It was a well-written and flowing experience. I got to talk to David Hwang, and I thought, ‘Why not invite him (to the University)?’ ”

Born in Los Angeles, Hwang studied at Stanford University where his first play, “F.O.B.,” premiered while Hwang was still an undergraduate. He later went on to enroll into the Yale School of Drama.

Hwang’s previous works have garnered him recognition in the form of multiple Obie awards, Pulitzer nominations and a Tony Award for his best-known play, “M. Butterfly.”

Hwang’s presentation today, hosted by the University’s Confucius Institute, will focus on his road to writing “Chinglish,” as well as a discussion of playwriting.

“The opportunity to talk with an award-winning playwright is a great opportunity,” Lam said. “It is a chance students interested in writing should not miss.

“(Hwang) is coming to explain what he has achieved and to give us a bit of his producer-and-writer perspective on China in America.”

A recurring theme in Hwang’s plays is the Chinese-American identity and the clash of these two cultures. Hwang’s recent play, “Chinglish,” continues the exploration of culture-crisis by following a young American businessman on his travels to China. Though the play’s comedic interludes stem from misunderstandings and translational mishaps, much of the play is spent underlining the less-obvious issues with communication.

“The problem isn’t always a matter of translation — sometimes it’s not just about finding a different word or a different context, it’s about intonation and a physical aspect of language,” Lam said.

Hwang’s talent as a playwright aids viewers in understanding the play, which is largely spoken in Mandarin.

“Those that don’t know Chinese can really grasp the nuances and the issues in part due to the creative dramatist work,” Lam said. “(Hwang) was able to insert humor and drama and create a piece that is accessible.”

The cultural variation in the play reflects the differences in upbringing in Western and Eastern society — things that are, at their core, fundamentally “other.” But in these seemingly separate beliefs, Hwang found a way to connect the two areas of the world.

“He really gets at the issues,” Lam said. “Beside the language, tradition and challenges of Chinese values, the play discusses questions of morality and love and betrayal — all these really deep human issues that are universal.”