by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 27, 2012
08:07 AM
Box Office

Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang


(page 3 of 5)

I just saw today that Chinglish has been optioned for the big screen.

Yeah, we're going to be developing it as a movie. We announced that yesterday and today, we announced the plays that will be performed as part of my upcoming season-in-residence at the Signature Theatre. We're going to be doing Golden Child, a play of mine from the late 1990s, and then The Dance and the Railroad, a really early play of mine written in 1981 while I was at Yale. This is the play that I mentioned was off- off- Broadway and then moved to the Public.

Then we'll be doing a new play inspired by the life of Bruce Lee, called Kung Fu.

That's a musical, right?

No, it's not—I've been working on a different Bruce Lee project that kind of fell apart. This is my own version of the story.

That leads to a question I was going to ask you later, Stephen Colbert style: Keye Luke—great Asian American actor or the greatest Asian American actor?

I would say great Asian American actor. He was amazing. But if I had to name the greatest, I would go with someone like Anna May Wong—people from a slightly earlier era. Or certainly Bruce Lee. There are a few and I hate to rank these people.

So, why is Bruce Lee in the pantheon?

I think because he redefined a paradigm. He really was able to take control of the medium and put out an image that didn't exist before. Before Lee, the popular images of Chinese people was that they were villains or menials—cooks, waiters, laundrymen. Or you had the Charlie Chan model, but he wasn't powerful. The idea of a Chinese hero in the West . . . Lee created an archetype, an image, that never existed before. I think that's really hard to do.

Does your play deal with other aspects of his life as well?

I'm sort of not talking about it too much right now, 'cause I'm still in the midst of finishing it. [laughs] It's essentially the story of this young man who comes from Hong Kong to the United States and decides he's going to become the world's biggest movie star, and how that happened.

What will be the challenges of turning Chinglish into a movie?

I sense it'll be a pretty smooth adaptation. The technical challenge of Chinglish onstage was to see if audiences could accept bilingualism and projected titles. We're used to seeing that in opera, and we're used to seeing it in the movies. So the idea that titles would function in the film is actually a much less complicated thing to try to get the audience to accept than it was in the theater. Of course, the story needs to be opened up for the screen and all that kind of stuff.

And the director is going to be Justin Lin, of the Fast & Furious movies. That's an interesting match!

Well, Justin came out of independent film, and about 10 years ago he made a film, more or less his breakthrough, called Better Luck Tomorrow. It was the first Asian American feature to become more than just an art film. Then he did the Fast & Furious movies. This is his chance to get back to his indie roots, and I've loved his work ever since Better Luck Tomorrow. We've been looking for something to do together, and this seems like the right project.

It seems with your recent work—like Chinglish and Yellow Face—you're moving in a more comedic direction.

I guess so. I feel like my work has always had a comedic aspect. I remember Joe Papp saying to me, "You'll survive in this business because you can write comedy." But I suppose comedy has come more to the forefront, and people have started to think of me as more of a comedic writer than they used to.

Does it come naturally to you?

I think it comes relatively naturally to me but also, as I get older and more experienced as a writer, it's a bigger challenge. There's that famous line: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." To be able to write something of substance that delves into an issue or explores a character deeply—technically, it feels like a bigger mountain to climb.

In a way, I imagine it's more satisfying, because it opens another realm of appreciation . . .

I think so. I think when audiences laugh, they become more open. And if you're trying to put out some new ideas or make people think about things, I actually think laughter is helpful.

Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang

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Box Office is your guide to entertainment across Connecticut, courtesy of senior editor Pat Grandjean. If it's a chat with an actor or actress, previewing a new play at a regional theater, the latest on a state celebrity's new movie, or recommendations for seeing and doing, let Box Office be one of your hubs.

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