Art of Change Fellow David Henry Hwang answers questions for the Art of Change on shifting demographics, diverse voices and representations in all forms of art and media, and why it’s important to critique “mainstream” stories. Read David’s answers below, and then tune in on January 15 to watch the live stream of The Artists of Change–a daylong interactive forum with Hwang and the other Fellows presenting about their work.
Art of Change: You have spoken about how with the approaching demographic shift in 2040 when Caucasians will no longer be the majority in the US, there has been a reignition of the culture wars surrounding identity. Your work has explored identity, multiculturalism and race since the early 80’s. How has the conversation around these topics changed?
David Henry Hwang: Many of us remember the culture wars of the 1980’s. Though they were caricatured for periodic excesses (some of which I too lampoon also in my play YELLOW FACE), they ultimately proved necessary to advance the acceptance of diverse voices and viewpoints, around issues such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Similarly, our current culture wars are condemned by some as assaults on free speech by “fragile” students and “intolerant” student activists. Exactly when have student activists ever been tolerant? I remember when students routinely occupied administration offices and occasionally planted bombs. If anything, student activists today strike me as more thoughtful and reasonable than those of my generation.
What are today’s culture wars meant to achieve? I believe they are working to re-center the mainstream. If the 80’s introduced diverse voices, our current decade seeks to place these voices at the center of our national lens. As opposed to white male perceptions serving as our default, previously alternative points of view can now become mainstream. This is why debates over seemingly trivial matters, such as culturally appropriative Halloween costumes, are important. A large portion of the population cannot even grasp why they might be offensive, and until such issues are at least understood, no true dialogue can take place. Again, those of us who are boomers may recall equally strident battles over superficially trivial matters such as college dress codes and male hair length. Our current wars seek to re-center art, culture, and perception for a new demographic age in America.
You work in both the popular culture context and in the nonprofit theater context. Are issues of diversity and equity playing out differently in these spaces, and if so, what lessons might be shared? (Or, if not, how might these issues be advanced?)
Let’s look at THE FORCE AWAKENS for a moment. Much has been made of the fact that the leads of this new installment are a female, and a male of color. This serves to recenter the mainstream, away from a white male hero as our default. Others argue that the current interest in casting actors of color in roles originated by white actors (e.g. James Bond, Johnny Storm, Hermione) pretends that we have already achieved a post-racial society; instead, we need to be telling more stories about actual people of color.
To my mind, both strategies are important. In the past, narratives which did not specifically address the subject of race were told through white actors, who therefore stood in for default universality. In THE FORCE AWAKENS, universality resides in a diverse range of bodies, which shows progress, as the white racists who have protested the “black storm-trooper” recognize all too well. Going further, however, universality can reside, not only in diverse bodies, but in diverse stories as well. Just as Tennessee Williams wrote “ethnic” characters, in his case whites from the American South, characters from a wide range of racial, social, and sexual communities can become mainstream art and entertainment.
Comparing different mediums, let’s turn to one example with which I’m familiar: representation of Asian Americans, which has advanced most dramatically over the past couple of years in television. Suddenly, we have a number of TV shows featuring Asian American leads: FRESH OFF THE BOAT, DR. KEN, MASTER OF NONE, etc. The increase in Asian actors on TV (and to a lesser extent, film) is driven partially by the importance of China, which will soon surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest movie market. Hopefully, the success of these shows will also encourage American theatre producers to realize there’s a domestic audience out for Asian stories, which hasn’t really happened yet. This is not for a lack of talent. We currently enjoy a wealth of excellent young Asian Pacific American playwrights — Lloyd Suh, Jihae Park, A. Rey Pamatmat, Young Jean Lee, Hansol Jung, Susan Stanton, Qui Nguyen, to name a few. So far, only Rajiv Joseph and I have made it to Broadway, but so many more deserve wider exposure. Theatre happens to be an art form with both a not-for-profit and a for-profit sector. Although the not-for-profit arm has done a decent job of cultivating new talent, this hasn’t yet translated to the commercial branch.
In your upcoming work you are exploring the ways in which empires use art and culture to maintain their dominance over people. In what contexts and ways are you seeing this play out today? How can culture also be used as a form of resistance to these forces of power?
Recently, I’ve been developing an original series for American and international TV, sort of SEX AND THE CITY set in contemporary Shanghai. So I’ve been dealing with script objections from Chinese censors. OK, I already conceded that I wouldn’t show People’s Liberation Army officers snorting cocaine. Here are some other actual notes I received:
– My stage direction: “Rachel stares at charmless overcrowded cinderbox flats.”
Concern: “Unflattering description of how citizens live.”
– My stage direction: “Rachel crosses Fuxing Park on a day with good air quality.”
Concern: “Implies air quality is usually bad.”
– My dialogue: “Our stock market is terrible.”
Concern: “Speaks poorly of the Chinese economy.”
I’ve been told that an entire scene from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3 had to be cut because it showed residences in China with laundry hanging out windows, implying, um, that Chinese residents hang laundry out their windows. Similarly, most of my plays cannot be produced in China due to content restrictions. As it flexes its economic muscles, China seeks to project an idealized, blemish-free image of itself to the world. This resurgent empire seeks to extend its dominance through the use of culture or, using the Chinese term, “soft power.”
I then began to think about my own culture in America. True, the censorship artists experience here is based on market, rather than political, concerns. Still, the vast majority of art and entertainment I’ve enjoyed since childhood, by privileging a white American view of the world, has also served to reinforce the superiority of that people and culture, often by distorting portrayals of others and history itself.
I recently saw the current Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I, which is a gorgeous production. I’ve always loved this show. Seeing it again, however, I couldn’t help but notice that its basic story is, well, ludicrous. To educate his children, the King of Siam hires a British nanny, who ends up teaching the monarch, helping him to civilize his country and bring it into the community of nations? How is this possible? Simply by virtue of Anna being evidently the only white person around?
Yet, by the end of this production, I found myself once again in tears. This dual perspective–understanding that a show sends an underlying message of white superiority yet feeling moved because it’s executed so well–helped me realize how my brain has been colonized to embrace narratives where people who look like me and come from the nations of my ancestors are more primitive, childlike, and/or hostile than white Americans and Europeans. China is therefore hardly unique in using soft power to capture hearts and minds – at the moment, its techniques are merely more obvious.
How do we combat this as artists? We need to create alternate narratives, while we critique and question those mainstream stories which reinforce dominant imperial and economic power structures. Personally, the process of examining how China and the West use culture as a tool to extend their empires now leads me to write my new play!
We will be celebrating the work of these 13 Fellows at The Artists of Change, a creative forum on January 15, 2016 from 9-5pm ET at the Ford Foundation. During this day-long interactive event, they will share their work and spark lively conversation around the ideas they are exploring. We will be live streaming everything here at artofchange.is, and at partner screening sites around the world. Tune in here and on social media @FordFoundation to participate.