The only Asian American ever to win the Tony for best play (M. Butterfly), David Henry Hwang has made a career out of dramatizing the issues of race, identity, and getting lost in translation. This summer, local audiences can revel in a Hwang trifecta: The Goodman has nabbed the world premiere of Chinglish, Silk Road presents Yellow Face, and Halcyon Theatre stages Family Devotions. We caught up with the playwright and librettist (Aida, Tarzan) in Brooklyn, where he lives.
In Yellow Face, the main character protests Miss Saigon’s casting as racist—exactly as you did in 1990 when a Caucasian (Jonathan Pryce) was cast as the Vietnamese lead in the musical’s U.S. premiere. What’s wrong with colorblind casting?
There was all this talk when Obama got elected about how we were living in a postracial world. But we’re not. Until we get to the point where James Earl Jones can play, say, George Washington, race matters. You wouldn’t put a white actor in blackface to play Othello. You shouldn’t have a white actor in what amounts to yellowface to play Asian. With theatre, we all agree to suspend our disbelief about so many things but not about race. It’s totally OK to have one actor playing five roles—people are willing to believe that. But they won’t believe it if there’s a black or an Asian kid who has white parents. What does that say about us?
In Chinglish, a 40-something Australian expat works in China as a Mandarin interpreter. Did you actually find a middle-aged white Australian who speaks fluent Mandarin?
That part was challenging to cast, to put it mildly. We basically searched all over the world. We eventually found a Brit [London-based Stephen Pucci] who speaks Mandarin and can do an Australian accent as well.
Yellow Face is the third Midwestern premiere you’ve done at Silk Road. What keeps you coming back to them?
For a long time, it was hard for me to get my work done in Chicago. Silk Road gave me opportunities to do shows like Golden Child—shows that nobody else seemed interested in. And they bring an artistic integrity to the work that matches anything you’ll find at a bigger theatre.
Chinglish is about communication on multiple levels. What’s the weirdest example you’ve seen of something lost in translation?
The sign “Handicapped Restroom” becoming “Toilet for Deformed Man” when it went from English into Mandarin. But the most outrageous one I’ve seen? “Dry Goods Pricing Department” translated to Mandarin as “Fuck the Price of Certain Goods.”
Photograph: Glenn Matsumura