LODESTAR By Danton Remoto
Monday, September 15, 2008
Art and Culture Section
For the month of August, David Henry Hwang’s play The Golden Child dazzled audiences at the CCP, in both its English and Filipino versions.
David also blew into town to attend the premiere of his latest play. He first broke through the tough American theater scene with his controversial play, M. Butterfly, which won the Tony in 1988. A film version of the play was also made of the play that featured a Chinese transgender lover of a Caucasian consul. The transgender lover turns out to be a spy. Both play and film version sparked a firestorm of controversy.
Remember that regnant then in the American literary scene was the notion of multiculturalism, which is like the affirmative-action policy teleported to the literary scene. But Asian-American critics panned the play and the film for depicting the Asian man as transgender, therefore feminized and weak. In short, the Chinese-American David played unwittingly into the stereotypical Asian image of passive, inscrutable, and therefore, people who could be easily contained and colonized.
David just shrugs off the criticism, like water off his back. He considers the comments somewhat valid, and agrees it comes with the territory. The most important thing for him is not what he has written — and he was written a whole archive of works. Among them: FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), Family Devotion and the Dance and the Railroad, Face Values, 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof and The Voyage with Philip Glass, The Silver River for Bright Sheng, and The Golden Child. The most important thing is what he will write next.
The Golden Child, written in 1998, was also nominated for Best Play and won for David an Obie Award for the same year. Nanding Josef of the Cultural Center of the Philippines invited David to come over, translated the play and asked Loy Arcenas to direct. Arcenas is remembered as another Obie Award-winner who brought here the May-i Theater Company presentation of Carlos Bulosan’s luminous play, The Romance of Magno Rubio, in 2003.
Like all writers, David dips into his life to create composite characters for his works. But none of the works are strictly biographical. As a writer, he is more like a painter than a photographer: he highlights and shades some parts of the narrative, the better to show their intensity and visceral power.
The Golden Child is somewhat controversial in David’s family, for it is patterned after one of his ancestors. Even his mother cautioned him to tell the media that it is just fiction, lest they accuse David’s family of being a carbon copy of the text at hand. “I fictionalized some of the scenes in my play and followed through some of the experiences of my ancestors.”
The play deals with the clashes between the present and the past, between East and West, between men and women. Telescoping time, culture and gender is a daunting task indeed for any writer, but David does loop them all together in this play. The casting is excellent: Art Acuna, Irma Adlawan. Liesl Batucan. Tina Chilip, Tess Jamias and Leo Rialp. The set design by New York University-trained Fulbright scholar Gino Gonzales was magical.
And the dialogue! The words volley around the stage, bounce into the audience and lodge themselves in the audience’s chest, leading to titters of delight at the wit and the humor of it all. And also leading to silence, to a painful silence, as the play delineates, with the shimmer of a deadly spider web, the motivations that underlie what we do. The play begins in medias res, or in the middle of things, and ends up coming full circle: ending where it began. It is a clever construction for a play rife with images of closed rooms, of tradition as constricting as bound feet, and joss sticks whose smoke vanishes into the air, to reunite with the spirits of ancestors and ghosts.
I asked David how he writes: does he have an outline, a grid, or a plan? “Before I write a play, I choose a theme and think of the problems and issues involved in that theme. Then I think of how to start and end the play before writing the whole thing. I would steal, borrow forms from other playwrights and come up with something effective.”
I tease him and tell it is so unlike what we learned in creative writing workshops, where a poet has to have an image, and a fiction writer should have heard a voice first, before the words will flow.
A smile lights up David’s face: “After I have planned everything down pat, the difficult moment of writing comes. But remember that I used to play jazz. I just wait for the sound of the words to glide, and then the play is born.”