NEW YORK — Even though it's only 40 blocks from the Joseph Papp Public Theater in lower Manhattan to Broadway's Longacre Theatre, it took David Henry Hwang's new play, "Golden Child," two years to make the journey. Along the way, it made stops in San Francisco, Washington, and Singapore - thus being a good example of how long it can take to develop a drama. The play is now up for a Tony Award for best play.
After winning a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed "M. Butterfly" 10 years ago, Mr. Hwang set out to continue his playwriting career, but he hit some bumps along the way. When his controversial play "Face Value," about stereotyping of Asian-Americans, failed a few years back, Hwang turned to a story he had been nurturing for years.
"I interviewed my grandmother when I was 10," the boyish Hwang relates backstage at the Longacre. "She told me these stories, and I turned them into a 90-page novel." It was this saga that became "Golden Child," the story of a Chinese businessman's decision in the early part of this century to turn his back on tradition and embrace Christianity and Western thinking.
"The play is very much about family," he says, "and how we decide what it is we're going to pass on, what it is we're going to keep, the sacrifices we make for our children - and then, as a child, how you have to both respect your parents, appreciating what they've done for you, and also find a way to disown them."
Though the story is set in 1918, audiences find themselves transported back to a time that seems even more distant. The lead character has three wives, common in China then. "It was a feudal culture," Hwang says. "Europe went through this whole middle period between feudalism and modern democracy. Of course, China's not a modern democracy, but all its changes have been within this century."
Onstage, characters wear silken robes, observe ritualized behavior among the man and his three wives, and honor their ancestors in religious rites. Women spend their childhood enduring pain from having their feet bound to achieve the culture's idealized feminine beauty. The young girl at the center of the story, drawn from the experiences of Hwang's grandmother, is freed from the custom when her father rejects Chinese traditions in favor of Western mores.
Hwang wrote the first version of "Golden Child" as part of a commission from South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., where he did a reading in spring 1996. In the fall, it went into production at New York's Papp Public Theater. When that run ended, "we were happy with a lot of things we'd done but felt the story wasn't as clear as it could be."
The production returned in January 1997 to the South Coast Repertory, where work continued on the script. Then, in March, the production went to the Kennedy Center.
"I frankly feel we took a step backwards in Washington," Hwang says. "This play has always had a complicated balance between humor and tragedy, and I probably pushed James [Lapine, the director] to make the show funnier. So we got a show that was too funny and compromised the dramatic aspects, especially the tragic things that happen in the second act. After that, we took some time off."
"Golden Child," rewritten again, resurfaced in January 1998 - this time out of the country in Singapore, a move developing plays don't often make. "I'd worked there a number of times before," he says, "and it seemed important to bring it to Asia, because it's the first play I'd ever done that takes place primarily in China, and certainly in period. And in a funny way, it's a play about assimilation - not assimilation in America, but Western assimilation happening to a man in China. Asians are dealing with that at a remarkable pace right now.
"In Singapore, I could see if it was meaningful to an Asian audience, and they confirmed for me that it was authentic, realistic. It was a good test for the play."
Then, following an American tryout for a month in San Francisco, "Golden Child" opened on Broadway in April. Though the audiences have been small, the production received a Tony nomination for best play, beating out plays by Neil Simon and David Mamet. The awards will be presented June 7.
"After 'M. Butterfly,' " Hwang says, "I wanted to be able to bring a drama with a mostly or all-Asian cast to Broadway, which hadn't been done since 'Rashomon' in the late '50s. Of course, there were musicals [that had Asian casts]. This was a conscious motivation of mine in creating 'Golden Child.'
"The subject matter is a little unusual for Broadway, so it's been harder to get people to buy tickets. When they see the show, they seem to really like it, because the whole idea of heritage is incredibly universal."