Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of his latest play CHINGLISH following a hugely successful run in Chicago at the historic Goodman Theater. DHH has graciously agreed to blog weekly throughout the rehearsal process to give our readers a glimpse into how a major theatrical production comes to life.
Sometimes, you can start to dislike one of your own characters. A figure from CHINGLISH who has deepened through the New York leg of our journey is Peter Timms, a white English expat living in China, who our American businessman hires as his translator and consultant. Peter started out as a composite of the many non-Chinese expats I’d met during my trips over there. In some ways, they are the reverse of my parents: immigrants who traveled from the West to Asia. They could also, however, be considered the descendants of Colonialists from earlier centuries who settled in the “Orient” to rule and exploit it. And, in today’s bustling Chinese economy, Mandarin-speaking Westerners in their 20’s can experience a range of exciting opportunities which they would probably not have access to back home.
Peter, however, is not one of those young Westerners. He’s in his early-40’s, and has lived in China almost twenty years. Which means, he arrived there when the country was still poor, and foreigners relatively rare. So Peter’s a bit of a relic. When he first arrived, simply being a white guy who spoke Mandarin made him instantly employable. But China has changed a lot, and he doesn’t want to be left behind.
My dramaturg Oskar kept talking to me about one of Peter’s scenes: he first has a big fight with the American, then immediately confesses his history and insecurities. Would anyone really to do that? My wife also helped me think about Peter more deeply.
A few weeks ago, it hit me: I don’t like Peter. In fact, I feel contempt for him. Over a drink, I asked Oskar to psychoanalyze me: what was my problem? Oskar said, it’s ok if I don’t like a character, but if I feel contempt, that limits my ability to see him fully. He asked, “Did you feel differently about Peter when you wrote the first draft?”
I had. What had happened in the interim? Then I realized: months ago, I had cut a character from the play. An older woman, for whom Peter had done something nice. Ever since, Peter doesn’t do anything selfless in the play. He simply takes from China, without giving back.
So I wrote a new beat, where Peter does a similar good turn for another character in the play. And started to regain affection for my character. One might think that I would’ve remembered Peter’s good qualities from the first draft. But at least for me, the only thing that counts is what’s on the page. Once I cut something, it’s as if it never existed. Many of the tweaks I’ve been making in rehearsal lately continue to help me understand Peter more fully.
We’ve just finished our third week of rehearsals, an unusual one. We took a field trip to DC, where the Washington POST had organized a “Global China Summit,” bringing together diplomats, academics and experts from around the world to discuss the current state of China and its relationship to the rest of the world. CHINGLISH was invited to present a scene.
It’s complicated for me, as a Chinese American, to be included in a summit on China. I don’t speak the language, I’ve not studied much Chinese history, I certainly don’t consider myself any sort of expert. In fact, back in the 70’s and 80’s, when Asian American arts were starting to take off, we emphasized that we were exclusively American. When non-Asians associated us with our root cultures, that was racist. You know, the old, “Where are you really from?”
But as I’ve gotten older, China has become more fascinating to me. Also, I think many Asian Americans have become more comfortable embracing our “multiple identities.” We don’t have to be just one thing or the other; instead, we can accept all the influences that make us who we are.
So there we were, among figures like former Hong Kong Chief Executive C.H. Tung, Former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and Henry Kissinger, presenting a scene from our little play. In a lecture hall. After a long day of panels and speeches. I was a little nervous. Would people even stick around to watch us? And would they laugh?
Fortunately, they did. About 20 seconds in, we got our first big laugh, and after that, the scene played as well as it had in Chicago. I was happy that both Chinese and Westerners seemed to be having an equally good time. Our play gets a lot of comic mileage from misunderstandings and cultural differences, but I’d like to think it’s pretty even-handed, poking fun at both sides.
After DC, we went back into rehearsals, and, a few days later, shot our TV commercial. The week ended with a run-thru for friends and producers. We have only three more days in the rehearsal hall, before we move into the Longacre theatre. Which is all lit up for our arrival.
And I’m happy to say, thanks to some dramaturgical psychoanalysis, I once again appreciate all the characters in my play.