I am so excited to tell you that we will be hosting the world-famous playwright David Henry Hwang Monday evening, November 11. If you don’t know him, I can say that this is a really big deal. Hwang has written M Butterfly, Yellow Face and Golden Child, among many contemporary classics. Last month, his new play/musical, Soft Power opened in New York City, with music written by a past Prologue guest, Jeanine Tesori. It doesn’t get much better than this in our business. John Moore recently included this talk in his line-up of best things going on in Colorado in November.
Since we announced this Prologue, several people have asked me what I mean by “problem play,” the actual topic of our panel discussion. Obviously this is a superb question and I should not take for granted that it’s clear. It’s not. Even the idea is loaded, since what one sees as “problematic” on stage, another may find acceptable. As with all Prologues, our intent is to create an atmosphere where we can comfortably ask questions, talk, make brilliant observations and even feel ok about making mistakes. That’s the point of community conversations and panels.
The idea of this talk arose out of several discussions and mini-controversies that I have seen in Colorado Springs theatre. When Theatreworks presented Merchant of Venice several years ago, there were lots of important conversations and emotions that swirled around the inherent anti-Semitism in the script. This unease is fairly normal for this classic play in contemporary society. Similarly, some artistic directors find it almost impossible to stage Taming of the Shrew, as they find it boldly misogynistic. And yet, “it’s Shakespeare!” some remind, “certainly presenting Shakespeare should be acceptable!” Some directors stage these sort of tough plays with a keen eye towards confronting those problems. Take, for example, Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway staging of Merchant several years ago. Without changing the script, he completely upended act five so as to invest the audience more deeply in the troubling narrative.
Take another example, related to David Henry Hwang himself and our community. Recently, Colorado College staged one of his plays, Yellow Face, a frank look at questions of race and casting. Hwang’s play was written as a response to a casting controversy several years before; Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian man, won the Tony award for playing the Asian identified Engineer in Miss Saigon. The irony was deep, especially since Hwang had recently become the first Asian American to win a Tony for his 1988 play, M Butterfly. The complexity was deeper still because M Butterfly is a play-off of the deeply troubling 1904 Puccini Opera Madame Butterfly, a colonialist and racially fraught script that is, nevertheless, one of the most popular operas ever written. Add one more layer of nuance, as CC was performing Yellow Face, Opera Theatre of the Rockies performed the popular Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado, an opera that is often critiqued for its depiction of Asian stereotypes. Many good conversations developed out of the circumstances and it illuminated a need for these sorts of discussions, especially when we are curious, open, respectful and understanding of all of our opinions and histories.
We will widen this conversation beyond plays related to Hwang’s career. A recent adaptation of the racially fraught Octoroon took New York by storm and cemented the celebrity of the young playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. He was able to make contemporary an “impossible” play. Some are still surprised when reminded that another play from that era, George Aiken’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the most successful plays (based on number of performances) ever staged in America. It’s near impossible to even imagine a production of it now.
The list goes on and on and is not limited to plays of race, class and gender. There are fascinating conversations to be had about plays that confront nationalism and jingoism, as well. We probably won’t have time to discuss it all, but with Hwang, we have someone who has thought deeply about this and written some extraordinary plays that address these challenges. Dartmouth professor, Monica Ndounou, and director, Lavina Jadhwani, will join our conversation. Professor Ndounou’s focuses some of her scholarship on this very issue. And Jadhwani has written eloquently about the topic, especially as it intersects with casting choices and historical expectations—expectations that have to be considered and challenged.
That’s a bit of a summary of the origins of this talk and I hope you agree it is shaping up to be a fascinating conversation for our community. On top of that, we get to spend some time with theatre royalty! I don’t want you to miss this opportunity to learn from people so important to American theatre.
Best to you all,
UCCS Theatre and Dance Program Director
Get your free tickets to this Prologue. Space is limited. You won’t be disappointed.
David Henry Hwang: Updating Problem Plays
November 11, 2019
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