By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer
The first Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award for Best Play looked back at some of his triumphs and the obstacles he faced in a new documentary streaming on the All Arts TV channel.
Ralph B. Peña of the Ma-Yi Theater Company featured David Henry Hwang as one of eight Asian American playwrights highlighted in The First Twenty: 20 Years of Asian American Playwriting. Some of the others include Young Jean Lee, Rehana Lew Mirza, Lauren Yee, and Chay Yew.
In light of the documentary series, Hwang spoke to AsAmNews about the last twenty years of his own career. Hwang makes it clear that he is not the first Asian American playwright and credits some of those before him with inspiring him. Those playwrights include Frank Chin, Momoko Iko and Wakako Yamauchi
“I think when I first started which was a long time ago during the early 1980s, it was hard in both film/TV and on stage to tell Asian/Asian American stories. But the difference is on stage, back then if you got a White male lead into the story, you could always somehow sneak in a strong Asian American character or the narrative in, whereas back then in film and TV unless it was some Kung Fu thing with a White male lead that was the most you could get,” Hwang said.
Hwang first rose to fame when he won the Tony for Best Play in 1988 for M Butterfly. Just 14 Asian Americans have won a Tony in the history of the award show, according to the Asian American Theatre Revue.
The First Twenty is a new content/documentary initiative from All Arts uncovering the ways that the first twenty years of the 21st century have impacted American art, culture, and the collective consciousness. The documentary series is broken up into 3 parts and includes:The First Twenty: Afterwards, The First Twenty: Ma’s House, and The First Twenty: 20 Years of Asian American Playwriting.
Hwang appears in part 3. This episode is interesting as it tracks the careers and journeys of these playwrights as they discuss the ins and outs of the industry, changes, and the contributions they and many other Asian American playwrights have made over the last twenty years.
“In terms of overcoming obstacles, the main one is playwrights breaking into TV with their skills. If we go back in time a bit, around twenty years ago, it was harder for playwrights to break into TV, as supposedly all we could write was dialogue and we were teased for that.
“Nowadays that has completely changed and gone 180 degrees as in the present time, playwrights are valued in television as networks and executives are looking for original voices and strong visions, and playwrights are used to working in production with actors, so this is a double skill we possess.”
Hwang is definitely a big name in the theater scene and is an iconic playwright, with generations of Asian American playwrights looking up to him as a mentor and as someone who inspires them to break into the industry. But who are Hwang’s mentors, and heroes and who did he look up to when he just got into the industry?
“There were certain playwrights of color – black playwrights and Latinx playwrights who I looked up to like Ntozake Shange who was a huge inspiration to me and Maria Irene Fornes, who is a Cuban American playwright with whom I got to study with and who was a fantastic role model to me. So I am hoping for the generations after me who are looking into the stuff I have done, will also think about those who have really paved the way before me.”
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story, or making a contribution.