By Lia Chang
Tony Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang urged graduates at Suny Purchase College to resist what he called the “absurd notion that everything in our world can be reduced to how much money it makes.”
“We can continue to value the intangible.” he said.
Hwang made his remarks after receiving an honorary degree from SUNY Purchase College for his accomplishments as a playwright, librettist, and screenwriter at the 43nd annual commencement ceremony in May at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, NY.
More than 1,100 students from 14 countries received degrees representing dozens of majors. In addition to Hwang, other outstanding leaders honored by SUNY Purchase College included PepsiCo chair and CEO Indra Nooyi and Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, while sound artist Stephen Vitiello (’86) received the Distinguished Alumni Award.
Hwang has been described by the New York Times as “a true original” and by Time magazine as “the most important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller.” In addition to winning the Tony Award, Hwang is a three-time nominee, a three-time Obie Award winner, a Drama Desk Award winner, an Outer Critics Circle Award winner, a John Gassner Playwriting Award winner, a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Deutsche Grammofone recording of his libretto for Ainadamar won two Grammy Awards.
SUNY Purchase said about Hwang, “Your wide breadth of production and your ability to apply your talents across disciplines resonates deeply at Purchase College. The creativity, innovation and exploration that define your professional life warrant our respect and admiration.”
Click here for SUNY Purchase’s statement about David Henry Hwang.
David Henry Hwang made the following remarks at the SUNY Purchase College 43nd annual commencement ceremony on May 15th at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, NY.
Congratulations! I’m so happy and grateful to join your celebration – particularly, at a college where almost half of you are graduating in the performing and visual arts – an institution whose theatre school, by the way, was only called the best in America by the Princeton Review. So I know I’m among artists, creative thinkers, and friends.
You’ve just spent four years – or perhaps some of you? slightly more than four? –growing as intellectuals and artists, pushing your boundaries, going outside your comfort zones, taking new risks. Now what? Well, each of you will find own path, but here are a few suggestions to help you hold on to the spirit of growth and adventure you feel today.
One. Beware of Dad rock. Around your late-20’s to early-30’s, you will suddenly feel tempted to believe that pop music has strangely reached the end of its history. That all the good stuff was written around this time or earlier, after which, creation simply ground to a halt. Fight this temptation. You don’t want to turn into that guy – or woman – in your 40’s driving down the highway blasting Dad rock – or Mom rock. Hard as it may be, try to listen to the new stuff sometimes. Because the temptation to give up on music is related to a larger issue:
Two. Resist nostalgia. Sure, you’ve just been through this amazing time. But these do not have to have been the best years of your life! When people at 50 or 60 start thinking that this world or this country was a better place in their youth, maybe the problem isn’t that the country has deteriorated. Maybe the problem is that they have. Age brings wisdom, except when it doesn’t.
Three. Think more like playwrights. This is obviously self-serving, but I do believe playwrights can save the world. Because you can’t actually make a living at it. I don’t mean to say that you can’t make a living – apologies to you parents of playwriting graduates. On the contrary, there are many related crafts – teaching, writing musicals, and nowadays particularly, writing for television, which are marketable and even profitable. And if you’re lucky, every now and then, you might even have a play which turns a profit. But for the most part, no one writes a play to make money. You can’t game that outcome. And in a way, this is wonderful, because playwrights are therefore forced to fall back on writing what we really care about.
And this goes against the current moment in American culture, which has always valued profit, and making money, but has recently devolved into a kind of “hypercapitalism,” what David Simon, the journalist and creator of THE WIRE, recently referred to when he said America had abandoned its social compact. I agree that America reached a tipping point, where we moved from a market economy to a market culture, and our society fell increasingly sway to a quasi-religious faith in the goodness of the free market to solve all human ills. Playwrights – but in reality, not only playwrights –many other sorts of artists, and academics, and actually, people from all walks of life can resist the rather absurd notion that everything in our world can be reduced to how much money it makes. We can continue to value the intangible.
Four. Do not fear the culture wars. In the early-1990’s, I found myself at the center of a culture war. I helped protest the casting of the British actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian pimp called “The Engineer” when the musical MISS SAIGON came to Broadway. We saw this as an example of “yellow face” casting, similar to blackface. Over the 90’s and much of the ‘00’s, I felt the culture wars recede. But recently, they’ve returned with a vengeance. Each week seems to bring a new controversy over cultural appropriation, privilege, casting. Iggy Azalea appropriating hip hop or Katy Perry misusing Japanese culture or Gamergate or the Redskins or whether the international writers organization PEN should have honored the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
When my first play was produced Off-Broadway, an Asian American newspaper wrote that I had “set Asian America back twenty years.” And I was only 22 at the time! Obviously, this was somewhat painful. But I also believe these discussions are necessary and even healthy. Because they prove that art still matters, that people care about how their world is portrayed. Criticisms of content are not censorship, any more than criticisms of aesthetic choices are censorship. Instead, they mirror larger debates taking place in our society, spurred by an important demographic shift, where in another 20-30 years, Caucasians will become a minority in America.
It’s important to remain active in these debates, over Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, and beyond — through art and culture, through protests, through our professions, and even over social media. One of my favorite recent tweets came from Arthur Chu, a columnist best known as That Asian Guy Who Won a Lot of Money on “Jeopardy”. Arthur tweeted: “Do people who change #blacklivesmatter to #alllivesmatter run through a cancer fundraiser going ‘THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO!’?”
Either we are a society that cares about all our citizens, or we are not. Just as you will be tempted to stop listening to new music, so you will feel a pull to stop caring about others, to stop fighting for equality, and justice. Many in my generation have already done so. But it’s often the task of a new generation –you – to pick up the pieces, ask the hard questions once more, and continue moving history forward.
Congratulations. Starting today, you begin to take ownership of the world. I have faith that you will make it a much better place. And, to quote some of my own Dad rock, may you stay Forever Young.
In 2014, Hwang was named director of Columbia University’s School of the Arts’ M.F.A. program in playwriting. Hwang’s upcoming musical productions include The Forgotten Arm, with music and lyrics by Aimee Mann and Paul Bryan, for the Public Theater; and Pretty Dead Girl, with music and lyrics by Anne-Marie Milazzo. Hwang is a writer-producer for the Golden Globe-winning TV series The Affair; is developing an original television series, Shanghai, for Lionsgate and the Bravo Network; and is currently writing the film adaptation of Chinglish, to be directed by Justin Lin. According to Opera News, Hwang is America’s most-produced living opera librettist, and his collaboration with Bright Sheng on Dream of the Red Chamber for the San Francisco Opera will be produced at the War Memorial Opera House in Fall 2016.
Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon and Taxman. She has guest starred on “One Life to Live,” “As the World Turns,” and “New York Undercover.” Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington and Roscoe Orman. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.