David Henry Hwang’s Obie-winning play “The Golden Child” comes to Manila
DAVID HENRY HWANG’S online biographies--in Wikipedia and the American Theater Wing, for example--invariably refer to him as the son of Chinese-American immigrants who settled in Los Angeles.
What these profiles fail to mention, and what many people don’t know, is that the celebrated playwright of M. Butterfly is also part-Filipino. Hwang’s Chinese ancestors established roots in Cebu and Manila, and to this day a good many of his relatives are still in the country.
One of them is Starweek editor Doreen Yu, who is Hwang’s aunt. Not that Hwang knew in the beginning. So large and spread out had the clan become by the time of Hwang’s ascent as one of America’s preeminent young dramatists that the playwright could be forgiven for not knowing who Yu was--a situation that the aunt remedied when she first saw Hwang’s play The Golden Child in the United States.
“The ‘Golden Child’ of the play is my second aunt, and the grandmother of David who lived in Cebu,” said Yu in a recent press con. “So when I saw the play, I wrote David and told him ‘I’m your aunt’ even if he didn’t know me from Eve.”
Hwang’s play, which gave him a second Tony nomination after M. Butterfly (he would receive a third for his revised libretto of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song in 2002), formed the third entry in a loose trilogy of dramas focusing on families surviving the strains and dislocations of changing times, cultures and traditions.
Family Devotions (1981) examined the impact of Western mores and religion on a Chinese family, while Rich Relations (1986) dissected the dysfunctional dynamics of an affluent American household--the first Hwang play to have non-Asian characters.
In The Golden Child, set in the early part of the 20th century, Hwang would delve deeper into his family history to create a portrait of a traditional Chinese family on the cusp of jarring change. The patriarch’s return to China after three years of visiting his businesses in the Philippines, where he would acquire Western values, sparks a clash of tragic proportions among his three wives over the unbinding of the old ways.
So fascinated was Hwang by his forebears’ history that, as Yu told it, he came to Cebu at 10 years old to interview his grandmother and record her stories about the family. It would take 30 years for the precocious boy to translate these childhood stories into a play, with the grandmother now reappearing as Ahn, the Golden Child, through whose young, willful eyes this complex tale of East-West collision unfolds.
Given its autobiographical roots, “The Golden Child is absolutely nothing like Mano Po,” stressed Yu, referring to the string of Chinoy-themed movie melodramas that have graced recent editions of the annual Metro Manila Film Festival.
From the first time she saw a US production of the play, Yu had been wanting to bring The Golden Child to Manila. And she had one person in mind to stage it: Loy Arcenas, the Filipino-American director and set designer whose designing triumphs include the Broadway runs of the Ahrens-Flaherty musical Once on This Island, Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! and Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss.
Arcenas, who has received awards and nominations from the LA Drama Critics Circle, the Drama Desk Awards and the Obies, among others, also designed and directed both the New York and Manila runs of The Romance of Magno Rubio, produced by the New York-based Ma-Yi Theater Company.
“I saw a US production of The Golden Child--it was a great show with beautiful sets by Loy Arcenas, so I thought it would be perfect for him to direct the play here,” recalled Yu.
At her suggestion, the Cultural Center of the Philippines and its resident theater company, Tanghalang Pilipino, have taken on the the challenge of staging The Golden Child in Manila, with Arcenas directing.
The play will have English and Filipino versions. Yu herself is helping former TP artistic director Dennis Marasigan translate the Chinese parts of the text into Filipino. Gino Gonzales is doing the costumes.
Arcenas, who wryly noted he had collaborated with Hwang on “a play that failed and didn’t open on Broadway, only in Boston,” said he was “thrilled” to be doing The Golden Child in Manila.
“I wanted to bring David back to the Philippines, and what better way to do that than with this play?”
The playwright has confirmed he is flying to Manila with his wife and two children to attend the play’s premiere. His presence in the country, said Yu, will also be the occasion for the first reunion of the 27-generation Yu clan, all “three barangays’ worth of relatives,” with Hwang as the star attendee.
The Golden Child opens at the CCP Little Theater on Aug. 8, 8 p.m., on the very same date and hour the Olympic Games are opening in Beijing. It stars Irma Adlawan, Liesl Batucan, Tess Jamias, Leo Rialp, and two US-based actors, Tina Chilip and Art Acuna (an Obie winner for Magno Rubio), plus the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors’ Company.
Coincidentally, as it sets about posing questions on identity, assimilation and culture, The Golden Child will share a near-simultaneous run at the CCP with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical juggernaut Cinderella, starring Lea Salonga, which opens July 29 at the Main Theater.
That audacious counter-programming move on TP’s part should make for interesting, provocative theater-going in the next month or so.
Hwang, in a brief excerpt of a taped interview played during the press con, was heard talking about The Golden Child and reciting the monologue of the First Wife. It ended with a question that roughly sums up the issues at the heart of the play: “How much change can people endure?”
“The Golden Child,” produced by arrangement with Hal Leonard Australia Pty Ltd on behalf of Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York, runs August 8-Sept. 7 at the CCP Little Theater. Call 8323661, 8323704 or 8919999.
PLUS: A brief video interview with director/set designer Loy Arcenas, in which I got to ask him how he plans to avoid Asian stereotypes in “The Golden Child,” whether change is good or bad in the context of Filipinos being “chameleons” (his word), and what makes this David Henry Hwang play an important one.