I have a 17 year-old son, so this fall is college application season around our house. Granted, I applied to college back in the Paleozoic Era, but I’m still shocked by how much the process has changed. First, it’s so much harder to get into some of these schools! I did my undergraduate at Stanford, which would probably never admit me today, since my SATs were mediocre. Second, I applied to like three colleges, whereas students nowadays seem to go for around ten. The rise of the Common App makes doing so somewhat easier, but each college still seems to require its own extra essay or set of questions. And nowadays, kids are encouraged to visit the colleges they’re interested in, so there’s that.
Way back in the early-1990’s, I came across a story I knew I had to make into a movie: the Opium Wars, fought in the mid-19th century so England could sell illegal drugs in China. Basically, Britain started out with a trade deficit problem: a huge appetite for Chinese goods, such as tea, silk, and porcelain, but little that China wanted to buy in return. So Europeans taught the Chinese to smoke opium, and eventually cornered the narcotics market, which nicely corrected their trade imbalance. When China’s Qing Dynasty rulers tried to stop the flow of opium, England went to war to keep the seas free for drug cartels.
This story has all the elements of a classic epic film: historical backdrop, large-scale battles, and colorful characters, but with an interesting twist. In this War on Drugs, the drug lords and kingpins were Europeans. Conversely, the heroes are mostly Chinese, such as Commissioner Lin Zexu, who confiscated and destroyed British opium, as well as anti-drug Chinese street gangs. This totally turns on its head our conventional images of good guys and bad guys. I saw it as a counterweight to films such as TAI-PAN, which depict 19th-century British drug barons as swashbuckling adventurers. In historical fact, the Taipans were the narco-terrorists of their day.
Well, it’s now been almost twenty years since I had this idea, and I’ve never been able to get any major Western production company interested. A Chinese movie called THE OPIUM WAR, directed by Xie Jin, was released in 1997, but I’m still trying to get a similar project going on this side of the Pacific. Lately, I’ve started to think I should do it as a stage play.
How about you? Do you have any pet projects that you’ve been trying to make for years or even decades without success, but continue to haunt you?
One big issue around the country this week has been the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the issue of marriage equality. I’m assuming that my fellow Offenders join me in supporting the right of gay couples to marry. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been fortunate to have had both straight and gay friends. As we all got older, most found partners and began pairing up for the long term. Except those who were gay couldn’t get married, which always struck me as unfair.
The issue really hit home for me, however, about seven or eight years ago. The partner of a good friend suddenly suffered a heart attack and went into the hospital. Even though they’d been together ten years at that point, my friend didn’t have any legal standing to visit his partner, nor would he be able to make medical decisions should this become necessary. Thankfully, President Obama mandated in 2010 that the partners of gay patients were entitled to equal rights of visitation and medical consultation, but this example really made me conscious of the many ways — small and large — that the inability of gay couples to marry relegated them to second-class citizenship.
Was there a particular moment or incident in your experience that brought home the issue of marriage equality for you?
There’s that old joke: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? An American.” Personally, I feel ashamed and embarrassed that I don’t speak a foreign language. My parents were Chinese immigrants, but they spoke different dialects and therefore English became the lingua franca in our home. As a kid, I had to attend Chinese school on weekends, but of course hated doing so and, this being the assimilationist 1960’s, my folks let me quit. I took French, Latin, German, and Spanish in elementary, middle, and high school, but can’t do any better nowadays than maybe count to ten in each.
As a college student, I studied Mandarin for two years, and as an adult, have made periodic stabs at hiring Chinese tutors, but my Chinese still totally sucks. My relationship to Mandarin is similar to that of a frustrated smoker to his habit: every now and then, I make an attempt to overcome my deficiency, only to eventually give up and relapse — in my case, into monolingualism.
What about you? Do you have proficiency in a language or languages other than English? And if so, was it something you acquired as a child in the home, or through determination and hard work?
A couple of us Offenders have had birthdays over the past week (Happy Birthday, Roger Fan!). As the years go by, I’m trying to resist what I consider to be an increasingly dangerous temptation: to indulge in nostalgia. I remember reading an interview once with a woman who’d been forced out of her homeland, and recalled it in glowing, mythical terms, like “the flowers were always blooming, the trees gave the sweetest fruit.” And I thought, “Well, that’s highly unlikely!” Of course, she was justifiably angry about the terrible injustice she’d suffered. But it seemed to me that it didn’t help matters to pretend that the past was objectively better than it probably actually was.
The same impulse towards glorifying the past, in my opinion, leads to conservative political thinking: somehow, America was better before the 60’s, or before all these immigrants arrived, or back when minorities “knew their place,” or before marriage equality, etc. The very smart political writer Frank Rich just wrote a great piece in NY MAGAZINE about how pundits of various persuasions have recently been wringing their hands over the so-called “death of America” – and, surprise, they all happen to be aging white male baby boomers.
On January 29, 2012, CHINGLISH played its last performance on Broadway. Towards the end of 2011, I’d been encouraged as the annual “Top Ten Best in Theatre” lists came out from different publications and we made about a half-dozen of them. TIME Magazine even named CHINGLISH the Best American Play of the year. Our producers put up a new poster in Schubert Alley, at the heart of Times Square.
Still, we didn’t sell enough tickets each week to keep from losing money, so they eventually had to close the show. We ended up lasting about three months – a respectable run, though we certainly would’ve liked to have run longer. Although I’ve learned from my experiences that however long a show a runs, you always feel it should’ve run longer.
Should we have cast a big movie star in the play? In retrospect, that would probably have helped us sell tickets and stay open. Nevertheless, I appreciate that our producers loved this show enough to gamble on going into the cutthroat commercial market of Broadway without one. I’m proud they were brave enough to buck that trend.
When I meet with students and aspiring artists, particularly if they’re Asian/Pacific American, I usually get asked, “How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be a writer?”
Well, I first decided to try my hand at playwriting back in college. And the thing about Asian parents is, generally, so long as you’re getting good grades, they don’t really care what you do in your spare time (one of my favorite movies, Offender Justin’s BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, suggests you can even kill people). So I told my parents that my English major could be used as a pre-law, kept up my grades, and wrote plays in my spare time.
As senior year approached, however, I had to come out to my folks and let them know I was planing for a different kind of future post-college. Fortunately, I wasn’t raised in a “Tiger Mom” family; my mother is a pianist, and my grandmother used to say stuff like, “Why’s everyone so worried about getting ‘A’’s? What’s wrong with a ‘B?’” Still, my Father was a businessman, and it’d be quite a stretch for two immigrant Chinese parents to accept their son going for a career in the theatre.
I’d written my first play, called FOB, to be staged in my college dorm. My Father took a look at the script; he’d never read a play before, saw some swear words, and said, “I send you to that fancy school, and you write this junk?”
Then he told my Mom, “We’re going to go see this play of Dave’s. If it’s good, we’ll encourage him, and if it’s bad, we’ll tell him to stop.”
I’ve been thinking lately about growing older. I suppose I’m the right age for that, having turned 54 this year. Though actually, I had my first midlife crisis back when I was 27, so this aging thing has been a periodic preoccupation for me. Like they say, getting older certainly beats the alternative. And currently, I find myself wanting to do new things: like I acted, playing a character for the first time, in Offender Quentin’s upcoming feature WHITE FROG. Also, I’ve learned that I enjoy cooking for my family (for some really easy, yet really tasty, recipes, I recommend Ming Tsai’s book SIMPLY MING). Moreover, I’ve started rediscovering some earlier interests. Back in college and during my 20’s, I was a jazz and electric violinist. I’d let my music go over the decades, but recently, I picked my instrument up again and started playing some gigs. So, as midlife crises go, this one’s been pretty enjoyable and constructive.
One compensation of getting older if you’re Asian American, is that people tend to think you’re younger than you actually are. Sometimes when friends point this out, I reply that looking younger now makes up for having spent my early-20’s looking like a 15 year-old, which was no fun at all. A middle-aged Asian guy once shared with me his theory about this: he believed that Asian males develop physically more slowly than our non-Asian counterparts. It seemed like a wacky idea at the time, but over the years, the notion has sorta stuck in my head. I mean, I do think I hit puberty later than most of my friends, and it didn’t finish for me til I was like 22. Whereas in general, we tend think of puberty happening, what, like between 12 and 18-19, right?
I figure the Offenders are as good a group as any to poll on this issue. Is it possible that Asians, as a very broad generalization, are physical “late bloomers,” which then ends up being advantageous in middle age? (This guy’s theory concerned men, but let’s include
women too.) Or is the whole notion ridiculous and my own experience was just a personal thing?
And here’s a bonus question: in my mind, I think I’m still 35. How old are you in your own mind?
We’re into the fourth week of our Broadway run, and I’m happy to report that things are looking pretty good. If you’ve followed the CHINGLISH blog posts, you’ll remember that Broadway is a commercial venture, and therefore all about profits and losses. True, we don’t have particularly large weekly grosses when compared to some of our counterparts. However, since we don’t have a big movie star in the cast, our running costs are also very low. Therefore, as of this writing, we’ve made money — not a huge amount, but some — every week, including during previews.
Significantly, our producers continue to believe in our show and are in this for the long haul. Their original budget included a large fund to cover potential losses, which we’ve not yet had to tap. So we’re in good shape. Of course, the hope is that good word of mouth kicks in, and our weekly grosses will continue to grow.
Playwright David Henry Hwang continues his weekly report from
rehearsals opening night of the Broadway premiere of his new play CHINGLISH, which officially opened last Thursday.
If you’re a dramatist lucky enough to get a show on Broadway, you know Opening Night will be one evening you’ll never forget. I’m fortunate beyond words, because CHINGLISH was my seventh Broadway show (though only my sixth opening; I had one play that closed in previews, but we’ll save that story for another post).
CHINGLISH opened on Thursday, October 27. It’s customary to present little gifts and cards to everyone involved with the show. Weeks ago, Leigh and I had decided to give chops — you know, those Chinese name stamp things — reading “Chinglish.” Joanna had them made for us in Hong Kong, and Ken served as our tireless mule, lugging a hundred across the Pacific from his recent trip there. The last two preview performances, Leigh and I hunkered in her dressing room, listening to the show on the backstage speakers while writing thank-you cards.
October 27 dawned cold and rainy. A Broadway opening is sorta like a wedding. Friends and relatives from around the world show up to cheer you on. I got a limo and traveled with my family, first to a reception for the Goodman Theatre, which had so beautifully hosted our show in Chicago, and then to the Longacre for Joanna’s ritual burning of incense and presentation of the roast pig.
David Henry Hwang continues his weekly report from
rehearsals previews of the Broadway premiere of his new play CHINGLISH, which officially opens this Thursday.
This is the part of the process I like least.
We froze the show — no more changes — last Friday. The new ending worked, so that’s the final text. Over this past weekend, critics started arriving. Thursday, October 27, is our opening night and, as those of you who followed the Chicago blogs may remember, reviews will start appearing online that same evening. In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait.
At the end of our final rehearsal last Friday, I told the actors that this is how I imagine I’ll feel when my kids go off to college. It’s time to let the child go out into the world, and make its own way. When an actor is the first to do a new part, he or she is said to have “originated” that role. In some cases, the CHINGLISH actors literally suggested line changes which got incorporated into the script. But simply by virtue of having embodied these characters, each one of them influenced how I continued to rewrite and develop this play, which, if we’re lucky, will have a future life and become part of American theatrical literature.
David Henry Hwang continues his weekly report from rehearsals of the Broadway premiere of his new play CHINGLISH.
1. The laughs are all still there, becoming more solid and powerful over our first eight performances, as the actors’ performances get tighter and more focused.
2. The show seems to be playing more emotionally than it did in Chicago. Audiences are getting into the love story, following its twists and turns. As a result, the play’s surface comedy and its deeper underlying issues feel more balanced, perhaps giving the evening a little more gravitas.
3. We can still make the play a little tighter, and button the ending a bit more clearly.
There’s a Broadway tradition of asking colleagues you trust to give notes at this point in the process: when you’re doing your final fixes before “freezing” the show. The great American playwright Neil Simon was nicknamed “Doc Simon” for his skill at diagnosing a play. Of course, if you feel your show is in trouble, you might bring in help earlier. But we’re feeling good about our progress, so are just covering our bases for some final nips and tucks.