David Henry Hwang is a playwright who has been producing plays, musicals and operas for three decades. He won the Tony Award for his play M. BUTTERFLY and also writes for movies and television. This is the second blog where David opens up about his worst career moves and unleashes his Asian Shame.
If you accept the theory that many Asian cultures hit upon Shame as a means of societal control, then you have to hand it to our ancestors. Shame is not only a powerful emotion, it is also incredibly versatile. In my previous blog, I wrote about the most obvious, garden-variety Shame: the kind derived from having betrayed one’s own ideals, and acted in a manner which is immoral, unprincipled or just plain stupid. In my case, this involved penning the 2001 turkey THE LOST EMPIRE. (I have since seen an interview with BATTLEFIELD EARTH screenwriter J.D. Shapiro, apologizing for his turkey. I hope this isn’t shaping up into a trend, because screenwriters complaining about the films made from their movies could rapidly exhaust the capacity of most industrial internet servers.)
Another kind of Shame occurs when one sets out to accomplish a goal which is not inherently shameful, but fails to achieve it. In my case, this experience was compounded by my feeling that I failed to satisfy, or even connect with, one of the most beloved of Asian American actors.
WORKING WITH PAT MORITA
Pat Morita, who achieved international success as “Mr. Miyagi” in the KARATE KID franchise, passed away in 2005. Most Asian Americans can remember him warmly as an APA trailblazer: an Internment Camp and tuberculosis survivor who went on to groundbreaking success as a stand-up comedian, Oscar-, Golden Globe-, and Emmy-nominated actor, and as the star of not only the first Asian American television series (remember MR. T & TINA?) but two more thereafter (BLANSKY’S BEAUTIES? OHARA?). I, on the other hand, am unable to summon such unambiguous memories. Because I worked with the man.
In 1985, Channel 5 in Boston was owned by a company called Metromedia, whose stations eventually evolved into the Fox Broadcasting Network. Channel 5 decided to produce an original play for television, modeled on CBS’ legendary PLAYHOUSE 90 series of the late-1950’s and early-1960’s. At the time, I was 27 and a newly visible Off-Broadway playwright, having had my first four plays, including FOB and THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, produced at the Public Theatre in NY. So I was selected to write a one-hour TV play.
I don’t actually remember much about the script I ended up penning, except that it involved a marriage between a Japanese American man and a Caucasian woman. The station seemed happy with my work, and began plans for production. When I met the director, however, his first comment about my teleplay was, “Well, at least we have a script.” At the time, I had only written plays about Chinese Americans; he joked that I was expanding my range by writing about Japanese Americans, ha ha. These did not strike me as good signs.
Sure enough, the director brought in a friend of his, an older Caucasian writer named Fred, to rewrite my script with me. Fred was a very nice man and a perfectly good writer, though neither of us had much in the way of film or TV credits. He no doubt found his job as uncomfortable as I did. But we got along and tried to work together as best we could.
The show was cast with Cloris Leachman as the wife, opposite Pat Morita, who was just coming off the gargantuan success of the first KARATE KID movie. With a hot-as-a-pistol Asian American actor coming onto the project as the “heavy element,” I had hopes that he, at least, would understand what my script was trying to achieve. As rehearsals began, however, I started to get this strange feeling: was it my imagination, or was Pat totally dismissing my contributions, both on paper and in discussions, consistently deferring instead to Fred? This became one of those difficult productions, with Fred and I up until 3 am struggling to deliver new pages for the following morning. As the days dragged on, my suspicions intensified: Pat would glance cursorily over my pages with what I took to be a look of disdain, before turning to Fred: “What do you think?” Now, it’s possible Pat was correct — that my writing was always inferior to Fred’s. That is, of course, a difficult explanation for me to accept. Added to the somewhat dismissive tone he took regarding my Off-Broadway plays, I eventually came to a different conclusion: he thought of me as someone who had gotten this job based on my ethnicity, and whose talent and abilities were therefore suspect.
The show, eventually titled BLIND ALLEYS (because it’s set in a bowling alley, get it? I swear, that wasn’t my title) aired on Metromedia’s stations; it was neither a great success nor a terrible disaster. I didn’t watch the program myself. Three years later, I achieved a Broadway success with my play M. BUTTERFLY. When I would run into Pat, he would embrace me warmly and talk about working together again. But I just couldn’t return those feelings. From time to time, I’m asked by a reporter or student, “Have you ever felt patronized or discriminated against as an Asian American in your field?” I usually give some vague reply, but inside I’m thinking, “Yes, once. By a TV director – and Pat Morita.”
I think about the life Pat led, the insults he must’ve had to swallow, the self-hatred that must have resulted – a tiny portion of which may have splashed my way. And I wish I could’ve done better, that I could somehow have figured out how to work effectively in that situation. But I couldn’t. I wish I could remember Pat with unambiguous affection. But I can’t. And so, I feel Ashamed.