Using the stage to highlight roles of race and ethnicity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2007, 12:00am

New York

At the age of 22, David Henry Hwang's debut play Fresh Off the Boat opened at the Public Theatre in the East Village and gained him acclaim from audiences and critics.

He told The New York Times: 'I write plays to claim a place for Asian-Americans' - a quote that became the headline for his profile in the newspaper.

Hwang quickly became a rising star on Broadway, best known for the Tony award-winning M. Butterfly, and became a role model for Asian-Americans and sometimes an advocate for the community. He was heavily involved in protests when the British hit Miss Saigon came to Broadway in 1991 with Caucasian Jonathan Pryce playing the Eurasian lead.

But yesterday, when Hwang's latest play, Yellow Face, opened in the same theatre for its New York premiere, his views on race had clearly changed. 'At 22, I was a kind of an ethnic figure and that was very meaningful to me at the time and as I have grown older I think it's less meaningful,' Hwang, now 50, said.

He analysed the personal transformation in the play, which is largely based on real stories - the protagonist is a playwright called Hwang and the names of supporting roles are all known figures in the Chinese community. The show starts with the Miss Saigon protests and switches to a later incident when the playwright picked a white actor to play an Asian role in one of his own plays by mistake. Hwang lost the respect of the community but the white actor became a spokesman for the Asian community.

By mocking overzealous advocates and recasting real-life bias cases, the play asks many more questions than it provides answers. When it is getting harder to figure out people's race only by the colour of their skin or even their last name, does face still matter? If not, then what is our identity?

These may sound like questions for a philosophy class. But to second-generation Asian-Americans like Hwang, searching for identity is a daily routine as many face exclusion in both their birth country and the one where their parents were born. Newer migrants from Asia are generally much more confident in their identity than those born in the US. So Hwang's search for answers more or less represents the struggle of a whole generation of Asian-Americans.

In fact, the Asian-American community did not really exist before 1982, when Chinese-American Vincent Chin, 25, was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit. He was mistaken for a Japanese and blamed for the declining US car industry in the city that suffered most from Japanese competition. 'If not for the common difficulties and struggles that we have in this country, there would be no need to say Asian-American,' said John Liu, the first Asian-American councillor in New York.

The difficulties in the US remain, from the high-profile false espionage case against scientist Wen Ho Lee to the recent case of the New York Chinese takeout restaurant accused of selling 'fried mouse'.

But compared to the '70s and '80s when everyone clung to their communities for survival, Asian-Americans nowadays seem to have more diversified views of 'community'.

Tao Lin, a 23-year-old writer based in New York, scorns the idea of setting up Asian clubs or celebrating Asian heritage. 'If white racists say Asians are not as good as whites, celebrating Asian heritage is to say Asians are better than white, it's also racism,' Lin said. 'I think being Asian is an abstract. It doesn't mean anything to me.'

For Hwang, the answer is a little more complex.

'I'm still proud of being an Asian-American but that's not the whole answer to the question of who I am,' he said. But he is not able to provide a full answer and is happy as a result because he believes life would be meaningless if he found the answer.