David Henry Hwang (born August 11, 1957) is a contemporary American playwright who has risen to prominence as the preeminent Asian American dramatist of this country.
He was born in Los Angeles, California and was educated at Stanford University and the Yale School of Drama. His first play was produced at the Okada House dormitory at Stanford and he briefly studied playwriting with Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes.
Many of his plays concern the role of the Chinese American and Asian American in the modern day world. His first play, the Obie Award-winning FOB, depicts the contrasts and conflicts between established Asian Americans and "Fresh Off the Boat" newcomer immigrants. The play was developed by the O'Neill Playwrights Center and premiered in 1981 Off-Broadway at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. Papp went on to produce four more of Hwang's plays, including the Pulitzer finalist drama The Dance and the Railroad, which told the story of a former Chinese opera star working as a coolie laborer in the late 1800's, Family Devotions, a darkly comic take on the effects of Western religion on a Chinese family, and Sound and Beauty, the omnibus title to two Hwang one-act plays set in Japan.
His next play, Rich Relations, was his first to feature non-Asian characters. It premiered at the Second Stage Theatre in New York and, though not a success, did prepare him for his work on his most well-known play-- some consider it his masterpiece-- M. Butterfly, for which he won a Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, the John Gassner Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play. It was also his second play to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play is a clever and brilliant deconstruction of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. The play is also loosely based on news reports of the relationship between a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, and Shi Pei Pu, a male Chinese opera singer who purportedly convinced Boursicot that he was a woman throughout their twenty year long relationship. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and made Hwang the first Asian-American to win the Tony Award for Best Play.
The success of M. Butterfly prompted Hwang's interests in many different directions, including work for opera, film, television, and the musical theatre. Throughout the 1990's, he continued to write for the stage, including short plays for the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville and his second Broadway venture Golden Child, which won the 1997 Obie Award when it premiered Off-Broadway and gave Hwang his second Tony nomination. In the new millennium, he has continued to work solidly in all areas of dramatic writing and premiered his third Broadway success-- a radical revision of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, II, and Joseph Fields' musical Flower Drum Song. Adapted from the novel The Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee, it tells the story of culture clash with a Chinese family living in San Francisco. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization allowed Hwang to throw out everything in the musical except character names and songs and his version-- both an homage to the original and a modern re-thinking-- won him his third Tony nomination. He his currently working on his new full-length play Yellow Face, reportedly a re-working of his one failed Broadway experiment Face Value, which was planned for premiere in 1993 but never opened. The project will apparently be Hwang's return to the Public Theatre.
Hwang's work for the stage includes FOB, The Dance and The Railroad, Family Devotions, The House of Sleeping Beauties (adapted from Yasunari Kawabata's novella House of the Sleeping Beauties), The Sound of a Voice, As the Crow Flies, Rich Relations, Face Value, Bang Kok, Bondage, Trying to Find Chinatown, Golden Child, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, the children's play Tibet Through the Red Box (based upon Peter Sis' book), and Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet.
His work for the music-theatre includes the texts for Philip Glass' 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, The Voyage, and The Sound of a Voice, the book for Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida (co-written by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls), the Walt Disney Company's theatrical version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, the libretti for The Silver River with music by Bright Sheng and Ainadamar with composer Osvaldo Golijov, as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.
He has also written a number of screenplays, including David Cronenberg's adaptation of M. Butterfly, John Madden's Golden Gate, Neil LaBute's Possession (co-written with Laura Jones and LaBute, adapted from the novel by A. S. Byatt). He also wrote the teleplay for the NBC mini-series The Lost Empire, directed by Peter MacDonald.
As another extension of his interests, he penned the texts for three dance pieces-- Ruby Shang's Yellow Punk Dolls and Dances in Exile as well as Maureen Flemming's After Eros (with music by Philip Glass). He also co-wrote the Prince song "Solo" for his album Come.
He has been awarded numerous grants, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. He has been honored with awards from the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, the Association for Asian Pacific American Artists, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, the East West Players, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the Center for Migration Studies, the Asian American Resource Workshop, the China Institute, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In 1998, the nation's oldest Asian American theatre company, the East West Players, christened its new mainstage The David Henry Hwang Theatre. In 1994, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
He lives in New York City with his wife, actress Kathryn Layng, and their children, Noah David and Eva Veanne.
Selected Published Work