David Henry Hwang Biography

In David Henry Hwang's plays, East and West often meet—and the results are usually not pretty. No other playwright has had as much critical and commercial success in confronting issues of Asian and Asian-American identity. His most heralded work, M. Butterfly, took a real-life political scandal and filtered it through the lens of Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly. The result is a play that questions traditional notions of race, gender, and identity. In Hwang’s other works, F.O.B. (an acronym for the derogatory phrase “fresh off the boat”) and Yellow Face, the playwright continues to confront the question of how Americans identify (and mis-identify) Asians. In addition, he examines and deconstructs how Asians identify themselves. His plays are at once confrontational and sharply humorous, and have helped carve a place for Asian-American theater in the United States.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hwang rewrote the book for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, which centers on Asian-American immigrants. Ironically, Hwang’s more multicultural and politically correct version was less commercially successful than the original.
  • Hwang serves on the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and was appointed by President Clinton.
  • Hwang has worked closely with prolific composer Philip Glass. The two have collaborated on numerous music- and dance-based pieces.
  • Hwang is the first Asian American to win a Tony Award for Best Play. He received it for his 1988 work M. Butterfly.
  • Hwang wrote the books for the Disney musicals Tarzan (based upon the animated film of the same name) and Aida (which featured music by Elton John).


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David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957, in San Gabriel, a suburb of Los Angeles. His father, Henry Y. Hwang, grew up in Shanghai, China, and in the 1970’s founded the Far East National Bank, the first Asian American-owned national bank in the United States. David’s mother, Dorothy Hwang, born in southeast China and raised in the Philippines, was a talented pianist who encouraged her son to play the violin. Although David’s mother and sister became classical musicians, he opted for jazz and played in an all-Asian rock band during college. He even composed an “Oriental riff” for his play Face Value (1993).

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Educated in an elite preparatory school, Hwang was always interested in words. He was on the school’s debate team and was encouraged by his parents to become a lawyer. Hwang’s family was actively involved in the “born again” Evangelical Christian Church, a fact bitterly satirized in his play Family Devotions (1981). He grew up feeling that he should date only Chinese girls and for a few years was married to Ophelia Chong, a Chinese Canadian artist. His later plays, such as M. Butterfly (1988), Bondage (1992), and Face Value, use themes of interracial love and rebellion against traditional images and expectations. He has said that there was always a part of him that did things that were not expected of him. In the early 1990’s, he began living with Caucasian actress Kathryn Layng in Los Angeles, whom he married in 1993. The couple resides with their children in New York City. Hwang promotes in his work the idea of cultures existing harmoniously side by side, and he believes that children of mixed heritage represent the world’s future.

At Stanford University, John L’Heurex, a novelist and creative-writing instructor, encouraged Hwang to pursue playwriting. Another of Hwang’s early formative influences was the 1978 Padua Hills Playwrights Festival workshop, where he studied under Sam Shepard, an explosive playwright whose work combines human interaction with mythmaking and to whom Hwang dedicated Family Devotions. His play F.O.B. (1978) was staged Off-Broadway and was developed for the Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and the New York...

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