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Artists We Love: David Henry Hwang

Since emerging in 1980 with his Obie-award winning FOB, David Henry Hwang has established himself as one of contemporary theater’s major voices.

A Tony®-winning three-time Pulitzer finalist, Hwang is a major force in the representation of Asian-Americans in theater. Many Asian-American theater professionals credit his work and success with inspiring them to pursue performing arts careers.

Oh, and he also co-wrote a song with Prince. Yeah. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

Hwang, a fan of Prince since hearing his raw and raunchy 1980 album, Dirty Mind, was thrilled when The Purple One sought him out in 1993 to discuss an idea for a musical. Hwang agreed to write both a draft, as well as Prince’s other request: a poem steeped in the sorrow of losing someone you loved.

The musical fell by the wayside but the poem became “Solo,” a song on Prince’s 1994 album, Come.

Hwang is no stranger to collaboration, having worked with a number of playwrights, producers, composers and more. He’s written books for musicals and librettos for operas. He wrote for Showtime’s series The Affair, and he’s had particularly fruitful collaborations with avant-garde composer Philip Glass. He helped Aimee Mann revise her The Forgotten Arm album into a musical.

Hwang’s early work explores the relationship of Asian-Americans with the contemporary Western world. Hwang refers to his first three plays – FOB, The Dance and the Railroad and Family Devotion – his “Trilogy of Chinese America.”

M. Butterfly utilizes the opera Madama Butterfly to underscore its story of a Western diplomat’s affair with a Chinese opera singer, adding gender and political intrigue to its cultural themes.

Hwang radically reworked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, a play about Asian-American assimilation (and resistance to assimilation). His own Yellow Face is a semi-autobiographical, part-fact and part-fiction piece with origins in the protests over the casting of non-Asian actors in Miss Saigon. Soft Power flips the exotic Asian trope on its head with a musical-within-a-play that features Asian actors made up as Caucasians.

“In the ’60s, whenever there was any TV show or movie with an Asian character, I would go out of my way not to watch it because I just assumed it was horrible,” Hwang told Time Magazine in 2019. “I’ve come to realize that as a kid I felt oppressed by American popular culture. Therefore, a lot of my adult life has been about trying to gain access to the levers of that culture.”

Some of Hwang’s Broadway credits.

Hwang, who turns 66 on Aug. 11, is rigorous in his questioning of racism and cultural appropriation in the theater. But his reworkings of problematic shows such as Flower Drum and The King and I are anything but didactic.

“I feel like there are wonderful things, craft-wise, about a lot of these works,” Hwang said. “It’s important to see them through kind of a dual lens — to both understand the value of the craft and be able to understand how the delivery system was flawed.

“It’s fine to be aware of what we’re seeing — and be rigorous about understanding the context in which they were made.”

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