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THEATER

M. as in Metamorphosis

David Henry Hwang's career started with a bang, and 'M. Butterfly' gave him international fame at 30. Now his mind is on family: his own life and, in the new play 'Golden Child,' his ancestors.

November 03, 1996|Jan Herman | Jan Herman is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — Being Asian American has always been David Henry Hwang's stock in trade.

Since the fall of 1978, when he wrote his first play, "FOB," as a Stanford undergraduate and saw it open less than two years later at the prestigious New York Public Theater, the playwright has created a large and provocative body of work out of his highly charged sense of cultural identity.

Best known for "M. Butterfly," the 1988 Tony-winning play of sexual deceit and romantic delusion that tapped into the troubled East-West history of race, ideology and alienation, Hwang has made his crucial theme the immigrant experience, a topic that has been at the heart of American theater in one way or another for nearly a century.

He's at it again with his latest play, "Golden Child," a bittersweet memory piece based on his own family's history. But this time, it may be that he has written with more deeply felt emotion and, with the exception of "M. Butterfly," more intellectual engagement than ever.

Directed by James Lapine, "Golden Child" has its world premiere at the Public on Nov. 17, a co-production with South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it. After closing in New York on Dec. 1, the show will transfer to the SCR Mainstage in Costa Mesa, opening Jan. 10.

"I wanted to write something detailed and less directly political than before," Hwang says of the new play. "I sort of used Chekhov as my example. But I didn't necessarily know I was going to write about my family history."

"Golden Child" begins with a taxi ride from Manhattan that takes us back to China of a century ago, before arriving at Kennedy Airport. Unlike most of the writer's plays, which generally have two main figures, this one has a handful.

It tells the story of the taxi passenger's great-grandfather, Tieng-Bin, a widely traveled, well-to-do merchant with three wives. He returns to China from a trip to the Philippines with a British church missionary who converts him to Christianity. Although the encounter between East and West is rather comical at first, the consequences are tragic for the great-grandfather as well as his wives and a beloved daughter, who turns out to be the passenger's maternal grandmother.

Sitting in a corner of the Time Cafe, a vast bistro on Lafayette Street down the block from the Public, Hwang has come from a rehearsal for "Golden Child," where he left Lapine working on sound cues.

"One of the reasons for writing this play had to do with the fact that I've rejected Christianity," Hwang said. "When you're raised with a Christian fundamentalist mind-set, as I was, in order to free yourself from it you have to find something equally fundamentalist. I'm trying to take a more humanistic, complex view of how it is that my family came to the point it did in religion.

"To some extent--and this is really something I've developed more in rewrites--the story of Tieng-Bin is the story of somebody who's been raised in a Confucian tradition, which is very rigid and fundamentalist itself. Freeing himself from that, he has to find a new big stick to beat down the old big stick. Fundamentalism begets fundamentalism. I'm trying to transcend the rigidity and reactiveness that I needed, too, at a certain point in my life to become my own person."

Now 39, on the cusp of middle age, when writers are inclined to turn inward, it seems only natural for Hwang to explore his family's roots in a serious way.

"In some sense I feel like this is a play I've been writing since I was 10, when I wrote a 'novel' from stories my grandmother told me," he recounted. "It was fun to use the book as source material for something I'm doing now."

But making art of raw materials requires considerably more than a firsthand witness. In this case, his grandmother's stories only supplied the structure--that is to say, the plot of "Golden Child." Although many events in the play mirror what he'd been told, Hwang said, he had to imagine the characters more thoroughly and invent new situations where there were gaps in his grandmother's narrative.

Hwang's mother, Dorothy, a pianist, was born in the Philippines after her family moved there from Amoy, a southern coastal town in China's Fukien province across the straits from Taiwan. She came to the United States in 1952 to study piano at USC, where she met her future husband at a dance for foreign students. But when the pair decided to marry, her wealthy family--it owned the entire Philippine General Motors franchise, among many other ventures--insisted that her fiance convert to Christianity before they could wed.

Asked about the family's reaction to the revealing details in his plays, Hwang says he "tends to apprise them" of what to expect "because my parents go out of their way to see everything I've done. But I don't ask their permission to use what I want. They know my reaction: Sorry, I need that story."

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