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A tale of two Butterflies.


Playwright David Henry Hwang is smoking a cigarette he bummed from a crew member of this year’s Philippine restaging of M. Butterfly—the play that made him a Tony Award winner in 1988—and reminiscing about a career that has spanned almost 40 years. He wants to be remembered as someone who acknowledges “the importance of the many different types of people and culture and stories,” he said in an interview with High Life in September.

The themes that interest the California-born Mr. Hwang—and made him the “most important and the most successful Chinese-American playwright this country [America] has produced” (per the New Yorker)—were apparent from the get-go. His early writing credits include a trio of plays (what he likes to call “The Trilogy of Chinese America”), all of them staged in the early 1980s, that revolve around identity and the Asian-American immigrant experience: Fresh Off the Boat, The Dance and The Railroad, and Family Devotions.


Toward the end of the same decade, Mr. Hwang’s M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway and became a bona fide hit that was nominated for a slew of awards, including seven Tonys (it took home Best Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play, and Best Direction). A gender-bending love story based on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Peking opera singer Shi Pei Pu, M. Butterfly, during its original run, surprised audiences with its plot twist (spoiler alert: Song Liling is a man!). After a movie adaptation starring Jeremy Irons (1993) and a Julie Taymor-directed Broadway revival with Clive Owen (2017), the big reveal of M. Butterfly isn’t so much a reveal as it is a certainty. And yet, the resulting conversation about gender and race remains as potent as ever.

The September restaging of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly was accompanied by a photography exhibition that featured interpretations of “the perfect woman” by top Filipino photographers including Wig Tysmans and Jun De Leon. Pictured: The Chrysalis by Wig Tysmans. 

“We still have a long way to go,” Mr. Hwang lamented, especially with the political climate in America. Immigration is a hot-button issue, as is gender (see the #MeToo movement and, more recently, #WeWontBeErased) and race (see #BlackLivesMatter). “Even in the Hamilton year, 70% of the actors on Broadway are white,” Mr. Hwang said, referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning rap-musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda that debuted in 2015. The critically acclaimed production based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was hailed as groundbreaking for featuring mostly Black and Latino actors.

Mr. Hwang is now in a position to change things in the Great White Way. He chairs the American Theatre Wing, the New York City organization that created the Tony Awards and provides grants and scholarships to aspiring theater artists. He’s made it his mission to “move the needle in diversity” by creating more programs and opportunities for actors and playwrights of color on Broadway.

Rhapsody in Blue by Jun De Leon

He has his eye on Qui Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American playwright who staged Vietgone in 2016 in New York. Loosely based on the story of how Mr. Nguyen’s parents met, the comedy is about Vietnamese refugees who came to the US after fleeing the Vietnam War. “I think [Vietgone] should be in Broadway,” Mr. Hwang said. “There’s actually a great deal of diversity out there in terms Asian-American theater right now and a lot of young Asian-American writers…[the challenge] is how we can get more of these [plays] on Broadway and how to get more plays to Broadway, in general.”

Mr. Hwang believes that 2018 is an “an important moment for inclusion.” He pointed to the release of films like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, which featured predominantly black actors, and Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, which had an almost all-Asian cast. The playwright, who saw Crazy Rich Asians during its opening weekend, said that representation in film, theater, or any form of art is vital: “You don’t even see how much you needed it until you see it.”

Filmed on a production budget of US$30 million, Crazy Rich Asians — which was based on a book by American-Singaporean novelist Kevin Kwan — has made US$236 million worldwide, according to the latest data from The Numbers, a movie industry website. Its financial success proves that there is an appetite for stories from and about minority voices. “I’m generally a very optimistic person,” said Mr. Hwang, after being asked if he sees these developments as flukes or signs of real progress.

In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Hwang summed up his career as a playwright as a crusade against damaging cliches: “I find that much of my work has involved a search for authenticity; if I could discover more truthful images to replace the stereotypical ones of my youth, perhaps I could also understand my own identity.”

Mr. Hwang, now 61, spent his formative years at Stanford University. As an English major, he saw productions of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, a slapstick farce about a busybody matchmaker, which, in turn, inspired Hello, Dolly!; and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which has all the good stuff: jealousy, madness, and redemption. “The earlier shows made me begin to understand what theater could do and made me think, ‘Oh, I want to do something like that,’” he told High Life.

But it wasn’t until he started studying under American playwright Sam Shepard, whose 1979 play Buried Child won Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Cuban-American avant-garde playwright María Irene Fornés, whose notable works include Fefu and Her Friends (1977) and Sarita (1984), that Mr. Hwang realized that theater was what he was meant to do. Add to that list Arthur Lee Kopit’s Indians (1968), a highly political play that destroyed stereotypes surrounding cowboys and Native Americans, and you have a snapshot of Mr. Hwang’s beginnings.

Asked to explain the metamorphosis of M. Butterfly, and how, for the 2017 revival helmed by Ms. Taymor, he tinkered with the story that put him on the map 30 years ago, Mr. Hwang took a drag from his cigarette and replied: “There are always things that, as a writer, make you kind of go, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done that better.’”

The updated version of M. Butterfly keeps the themes, the characters, the structure, and “the bones of the show”—Renee Gallimard still unknowingly embarks on a two-decade affair with a male Peking opera singer and spy, Song Liling—and delves deeper into Song Liling’s experience in the relationship. The refreshed script also touches on the concept of intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 (a year after M. Butterfly premiered) to describe, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “the complex and cumulative way that the effects of different forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and yes, intersect—especially in the experiences of marginalized people or groups.”

While Mr. Hwang regrets that the new Butterfly didn’t live as long as the original—it closed six weeks ahead of schedule—he finds satisfaction in the retooling process. In a 2017 conversation organized by Asia Society, which also featured Ms. Taymor, the playwright shared that it was interesting to revisit the material given “particular things that are different.” He ticked off two major shifts: how we are more conscious of the range of gender expression and non-conforming gender expression; and how the power balance between East and West has changed.

It’s not the first time Mr. Hwang has edited and the honed the ideas of his younger self: In 2012, he rewrote several scenes in Golden Child, which ran off-Broadway in 1996 and on Broadway in 1998. Partly set in Cebu, where Mr. Hwang’s mother grew up, it is the story of an early 20th century Chinese family facing Westernization.

Incidentally, the version of M. Butterfly that made its way to Manila this September was a restaging of the 1988 production. And it is also this version that will tour in January and February 2019 in Iloilo, Davao, Cebu, Dumaguete, and Baguio. Mr. Hwang has no qualms about his decision to revisit and transform the play. He has given the world two versions to choose from. It is, after all, the nature of butterflies to metamorphose. “What we’re always concerned about was how we managed to have a great impact and engagement with the culture 30 years ago — and how you do that again, particularly when the culture has changed a lot.”