THE STORY ITSELF READS like a good play. A 10-year-old Asian-American boy, born and raised in Los Angeles, hears that his maternal grandmother, who lives in Cebu, has fallen ill. He asks his parents to let him spend summer vacation with Grandma, who then tells him stories about the family--an old and large Chinese clan going back many generations.
The boy, so taken in by the stories about his ancestors, records them on tape and, back in LA, writes them up into a 90-page “non-fiction novel”--his first attempt at literary work. The novel gets distributed to relatives in xeroxed form, earns very good reviews, and is then stashed away as the boy grows up.
Thirty years later, now a very successful playwright and hailed as one of America’s brightest young dramatists, he revisits the old stories of his grandmother and, from them, extracts a play that wins him an Obie Award and a Tony nomination (his second) for Best Play.
“The irony is,” he now says, “I recorded the stories because we feared that my grandmother would die soon, but she didn’t. She even saw the play when it opened in Los Angeles!”
The playwright is David Henry Hwang, acclaimed for his groundbreaking drama, M. Butterfly, and the play in question is The Golden Child, the Manila production of which opened last Friday at CCP’s Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino as the opening salvo of Tanghalang Pilipino’s 22nd theater season.
The Manila debut of The Golden Child stars Irma Adlawan, Leo Rialp, Liesl Batucan, Tess Jamias, Art Acuna and Tina Chilip (the latter two actors both New York-based). A Filipino version of the English-language play, with translation by Dennis Marasigan (assisted by Doreen Yu, Starweek editor and Hwang’s aunt), will run on the last two weeks of the show’s four-week schedule.
Hwang, in town to attend the premiere, says he’s very glad to be back in the Philippines after four decades.
“It’s really thrilling for me to be here with The Golden Child because I do have roots here in the Philippines. My mother’s family is based here, my mother grew up here, and this play has Filipino roots.
“I’ve been really looking forward to this trip, and feeling at various times during the last 40 years that it’s ridiculous that I haven’t been back here since I was 10,” he adds. “This is a wonderful opportunity to dovetail my personal desire to have a homecoming with this show, which is based on stories that my grandmother told me when I was a kid in the Philippines.”
As Hwang tells it, that early immersion in ancient family lore opened up an entire new world for him.
“I discovered a whole side of my family, history and culture that was so different from what I knew as a Chinese-American kid born and raised in LA. It helped me have a larger vision of myself and what I could be—to meet all these relatives and understand the history of our family in this country.”
However, after the early blockbuster novel (at least among his kin), it would take a while for Hwang to rediscover his own talent for storytelling.
“I didn’t think of myself as a writer, I didn’t know anything about the theater, and I didn’t write again in any major sense until after I got to college, when I decided to try my hand at being a playwright,” he recalls.
“Skip forward another 20 years, in the 1990s when I was in my 40s. I decided to go back to that novel that I had written when I was 10 and base a play on it, and that became The Golden Child.”
In the intervening 20 years, Hwang would firmly establish himself as among the most talented of a new breed of American playwrights—the first Asian-American dramatist to win a Tony for Best Play (for M. Butterfly), plus several Obies (the off-Broadway equivalent of the Tonys) and Pulitzer Prize nominations, and a leading reputation as the finest interpreter of stories on change, identity and assimilation as filtered through the prism of Asian-American, especially Chinese, experience.
On top of the astonishing commercial and critical success of M. Butterfly, Hwang would earn two more Tony nominations for The Golden Child and his revised libretto of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, which ran on Broadway in 2002, starring Lea Salonga.
When it premiered off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in 1997, The Golden Child received an Obie for Best Playwriting. Many of Hwang’s relatives who saw it also loved the play, but Hwang says his mother (who joined the playwright in gracing the Manila opening) wants a caveat attached to its performance.
“My mother really wants me to tell everybody that a lot of things in the play are fictional,” he says, chuckling. “That’s true. But at the same time, it’s based on the stories of my family and the stories my grandmother told me, which are very much the seed of the work that’s presented here.”
The Manila production of The Golden Child, about a Chinese patriarch whose acceptance of Western values shakes the foundations of his Fujian household in 1918 China, sparking a nasty row among his three wives (that should explain Hwang’s mother’s disclaimer), is directed by Loy Arcenas, himself a well-known Filipino presence on Broadway--“one of the finest set designers and one of the most successful in New York and on Broadway, and he’s also carved a really impressive career as a director,” says Hwang. “I’m thrilled that he’s the person at the helm of this production.”
Hwang’s clan is preparing a big reunion in Manila to welcome its most famous offspring. It’s another reason to savor this long-overdue visit to the country. But, mostly, says Hwang, “I couldn’t be happier that my homecoming coincides with the presentation of a play that began here in the Philippines--40 years ago.”
Welcome back, and welcome home, David.
Tanghalang Pilipino’s “The Golden Child,” produced by arrangement with Hal Leonard Australia Pty Ltd on behalf of Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York, runs until Sept. 7 at the CCP Little Theater. Call 8323661, 8323704 or 8919999.
PLUS: More David Henry Hwang--remarks during the presscon for The Golden Child, where he talks about the genesis of the play and his Filipino roots. Interesting backgrounder, and the man himself is a very engaging speaker.
PLUS PLUS: An exclusive--an excerpt from the Obie-winning play, read/performed by cast members Irma Adlawan (Siu Yong, First Wife), Tess Jamias (Ahn, the Golden Child and First Wife's daughter), Tina Chilip (Luan, Second Wife) and Liesl Batucan (Eling, Third Wife). Listen closely to the fierce, vibrant writing. Within this short, crackling scene, much is revealed about the period setting (1918 Fujian, China): the hierarchy of the wives and their brood, the petty politics of the household, the divide in social classes, the reverence for ancestral guidance, the premium placed on appearances of honor and propriety--the transfixing, paralyzing air of a tradition-bound culture about to implode. Two movies came to mind as I watched this scene: Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, for the similarities in the poisonous wife-concubine setup, and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, the opening mahjongg scene of which captures--in terse, wary dialogue among the women--the cramped, jittery, off-kilter mood of wartime Shanghai.