WHAT: “Flower Drum Song”
WHEN: June 26 - July 12
WHERE: Ordway Theater,
TICKETS: $18 - $27
A lot of artists make careers out of tackling issues of race and culture, but not many can say they’ve studied “This is Spinal Tap” or enlisted the help of Philip Glass in the process. Enter: David Henry Hwang, Tony Award-winning playwright and Pulitzer finalist. Born in Los Angeles, the Chinese-American Hwang specializes in issues of East and West, examining everything from race-switching makeup to Bruce Lee.
Hwang’s latest project, an updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” is hitting the Ordway Theater this month.
The author took time to chat with A&E before heading off to check out the Guthrie’s Kushner Festival.
You updated “Flower Drum Song” to suit modern times. How did you go about doing that?
There’s probably not a line left from the original script. It was the first Broadway musical that’s ever been done. For Asian-Americans, there were things that seemed kind of outdated and stereotypical. My hope was to create a show that felt like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and felt like a show from the ’50s and also kind of reflected a more modern sensibility. We just know more about each other now and more about Asia.
You changed a lot of the classical Asian stereotypes written into the original “Flower Drum Song.”
I added some too. There’s a lyric in a song called “Grant Avenue“ [about the main thoroughfare in San Francisco’s Chinatown] that is, “You travel there in a trolley, in a trolley up you climb.” I’m thinking, who’s traveling there? It’s the person who’s going to Chinatown. If you actually live there, you don’t travel there in a trolley. To me, that reflected that the musical felt like a tourist’s-eye view of Chinatown. I wanted to make it feel like it was written by people who were on the inside, who were part of that community.
You changed the main character from a mail-order bride to a political refugee, right?
The period of the show is late ’50s/early ’60s, and just about anybody who emigrated from China in that period … it was a political decision. They were leaving communist China; they were refugees — they got into trouble.
“Flower Drum Song” deals with the conflict between East and West. What are the signifiers of that clash in America?
It’s an archetypal American story. Every kind of American immigrant group goes through this particular rite of passage where they come from a different culture. Then there’s this struggle about, “What do we keep, what do we lose? What do we create that’s new?” In this particular story, we’re talking about characters that come from China. So, the question becomes, “How much of traditional Chinese values do you keep, how much do you try to assimilate and become Western? And is it possible to go too far in one direction or the other?”
Ultimately, it seems the great thing about America when it works is that, yeah, America changes people who arrive here, but the people who arrive here also change America. And I think it’s kind of that dynamic assimilation that creates the country that we live in today.
Do you think there are any items or images or even products in America that have come to symbolize that?
Food is always a great indicator of how different cultures come to America. You end up having foods that are either from some other place that become American foods, like sushi. Conversely, you have things that are created in America that get associated with some other culture, like fortune cookies. Fortune cookies are not actually Chinese; they were created in America.
Many of your plays are heavily musical, and you’ve worked with the likes of Phil Collins and Philip Glass . What is your approach to enhancing your plays with music?
I just think we all — even in my generation and certainly in yours — grew up with a lot of media. That’s happened increasingly, and there’s been a proliferation of virtual realities over the decades. There’s still only one kind of actual reality art form, which is theater. Theater should take advantage of the things theater does best. Live music is more exciting than listening to music on an iPhone or something.
You’ve mentioned that when you write, you borrow forms from other writers. Can you give some examples?
Of the three shows I’m having in Minneapolis over the next year, “M. Butterfly” was modeled after Peter Shaffer plays, “Equus,” “Amadeus.” It’s a similar structure, where you have a guy who starts the play at the end of his life and it flashes back.
So, a sort of cinematic, newer structure?
Yeah, there’s that, and “Flower Drum Song” obviously is modeled after the old Rodgers and Hammerstein form. “Yellow Face” [Hwang’s 2007 production about protesting the casting of Jonathon Pryce as an Asian in a play] is a little bit of a riff on the documentary theater, you know, like “The Laramie Project,” where they went in and interviewed all the people connected with the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. And then it’s also influenced a lot by mockumentaries like “[This is] Spinal Tap” and the Larry David show [“Curb Your Enthusiasm”] — the ones that mix reality and fiction.
What are the rules for using humor to discuss race, in your opinion?
I think humor to discuss race is a good thing, in general. It’s so easy for everybody to get really defensive in discussions about race, and as soon as you get really defensive you get closed off, and there’s no real interaction taking place. If you get people to laugh about things, there’s a vulnerability in laughter. It opens people up, generally. Now, of course, what about laughter that’s denigrating or puts down another group? I think that it’s always better to put down your own group. And we do a lot of that in “Flower Drum Song.”
So laughing with, instead of laughing at?
Yeah, exactly. In “Yellow Face,” there’s a lot of laughing at the notions of political correctness.
You’ve expressed that you believe race is a contradiction in modern society. Does it have to do with that?
Race isn’t real in the sense that … the genetic differences that constitute race, we’ve put all these meanings onto them. Race is this construct. In that sense, race is kind of meaningless. What is valid is culture. Cultures are like families at large. You’re raised in a certain family, with certain predispositions, and you can go along with that or you can rebel against that, but it’s part of how you were raised.
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