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Going Home : Worldly Playwright Revisits the Scenes of His Childhood

May 29, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

David Henry Hwang is a playwright who is consumed by the spooky misconceptions that people have of each other. Racial stereotypes, sexist distortions and colossal international misunderstandings all show up in Hwang's sharply chiseled works, which have made him one of the most praised playwrights in America.

Here, then, is a young man whose ideas were shaped in the harsh world of the Big City, right? Wrong. The 30-year-old dramatist--whose current Broadway production, "M. Butterfly," has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, including one for best play of the season--was born and raised in the safety of suburban San Gabriel.

"There's an intimacy to this place," Hwang said two weeks ago on a rare visit to his childhood stomping grounds, glancing pleasurably at the street scene on the far side of a restaurant window on Mission Drive. "The fact that you know so many people that you see on the street--that eases the process of growing up."

But does a suburban childhood produce modernist playwrights?

It does if you grew up like Hwang did, suggested the playwright, a slim man who moves around these days with a coltish stride.

Scandalous Affair

"M. Butterfly" is the story (based on an actual incident) of a hapless French diplomat who has a scandalous 20-year love affair with a Chinese opera singer, only to discover that she is both a spy and a man ("It was dark, and she was very modest," explains the Frenchman).

A spokesman for the New York production of the play said it will eventually come to Los Angeles, though he could not say when.

Hwang, who learned of the relationship between the diplomat and the opera singer from news reports, uses the farcical story for a "universal meditation" on deep misunderstandings between men and women and between East and West, according to New York Times critic Frank Rich.

Hwang's San Gabriel childhood was, of course, worlds away from such dark, shifty realities. His life in San Gabriel "was very uneventful, frankly," the playwright said, but it nevertheless straddled some big contradictions.

Gregarious Student

The son of a certified public accountant and a piano teacher, Hwang lived on a quiet block on Alhambra Road. He was a good student, though unswervingly gregarious, his teachers say. "He was never the little genius who hides his head beneath the desk," recalled Elizabeth Fenton, Hwang's ninth-grade English teacher at San Gabriel High School.

He sailed through Calvin Coolidge Elementary School and Jefferson Intermediate School, where teachers remember him as a boy who "was in everything, very socially active," Principal Jonathan Greenberg said. He served as Jefferson's student body president one year and joined the San Gabriel Youth Commission, advising the City Council on issues concerning young people.

In high school, he was an accomplished violinist, concertmaster for the San Gabriel Valley Youth Symphony, an aspiring pop musician ("Some friends and I used to play sometimes at Shakey's Pizza on Valley Boulevard," he recalled with amusement) and a member of the debating team.

It was debating that sent him to the Harvard School in North Hollywood for his senior year before he moved on to Stanford University.

"My friends had all graduated, and (the Harvard School) recruited me for debating," he said.

Susan Dietz, producing co-director of the Pasadena Playhouse, was his English teacher there. "I thought this guy was going to find a cure for cancer or something, he was so smart," Dietz recalled. "I knew he'd be doing something terrific, but I never thought it would be writing plays."

The playwrighting began after an inspiring few days in 1978 at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in Claremont, Hwang said. There the young man, who until then had thought he was destined to be a lawyer, met such theater luminaries as Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes.

"I had seen a couple of plays in San Francisco, and I thought, 'I can do this,' " he said.

In the happy-go-lucky environment of his youth, with soaring achievements rolling in like waves, being Chinese-American seemed incidental. "I knew I was Chinese, but I thought it was a minor detail, like having red hair," he told one reporter recently.

Chinese School

That may have been partly because San Gabriel was an ethnically diverse community, Hwang said, but mostly it was because of the way his parents raised him. "My parents' attitude was, recognize the fact that you're Chinese but also that it's not that big a deal," he said. "I never knew when it was the Chinese New Year. That's a bit unusual for Chinese parents. Some tell their kids that they have this 5,000-year-old culture which is superior to everybody else's."

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