Darkness. We hear the Dong people singing Track #2 from the CD Dong Folk Songs: People and Nature in Harmony: “We Close the Village for Rituals.” Lights come up on the actors, who remain seated onstage when not playing their parts.
DHH: E-mail, received January 30, 2006, from Marcus G. Dahlman to David Henry Hwang:
MARCUS: David, you won’t believe where I am. In China. Guizhou Province, to be exact. After everything that happened in the States, I needed to take some time off. So I came to China, hoping to find—something real, true? I’m not even sure. All I know is, my life back home, it used to have purpose, a direction I really believed in—but I lost all that. (Pause) One night in Shanghai, a city so futuristic it makes Blade Runner look quaint, another “waiguoren”—another “foreigner”—told me where I could find “the soul of China.” He described this amazing village he’d just visited, and a minority tribe called the Dong. (Pause) I flew to the provincial capital of Guiyang, then traveled ten hours by bus over roads barely paved—potholes the size of phone booths. As we climbed upwards, rice fields appeared everywhere—terraces, carved into the mountainside, centuries ago. Finally I arrived at a village called Zhencong. Soon as I stepped off the bus, I heard a song. The Dong call their music “da ge”—the “big song”—melodies that can only be sung by the whole village—together. The Dong have a saying, “Rice feeds the body, but song feeds the heart.”
DHH: That was the first of Marcus’s e-mails to me. More than a few Asian Americans still wonder what happened to him. In mainstream culture, however, Marcus, like most Asian American celebrities, remains virtually unknown. True, at the time of his downfall, a few took note.
THE ANNOUNCER: Senator John Kerry:
SENATOR JOHN KERRY: It’s hardened people’s cynicism. Everyone loses for that.
DHH: But for the most part, the story of a minor figure in a couple of discredited scandals disappeared after one or two press cycles. Blink and you would’ve missed it. As for my own role in the story, some Asian Americans noticed, but they chose to forgive me for my mistakes.
THE ANNOUNCER: Playwright Frank Chin:
FRANK CHIN: David Henry Hwang is a white racist asshole.
DHH: Well, most of them did, anyway. After all, I was a respected figure in the community, the first Asian playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. I even appeared on national television—with Lily Tomlin!
(Awards ceremony entrance music.)
LILY TOMLIN: And the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play goes to . . . M. Butterfly. Author: David Henry Hwang. Producers: Stuart Ostrow and David Geffen.
(“Un Bel Di” music from Madama Butterfly.)
DHH: From Mickey Rooney playing Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Bruce Lee being passed over in favor of David Carradine for a TV series called Kung Fu, Asians have consistently been caricatured, denied the right even to play ourselves. Well, it’s a new day in America. We’re entering the 1990s, and all that stops now! dp n="21" folio="9" ?
(The sound of a ringing phone. Music out.)
BD: Hi, David, it’s BD.
THE ANNOUNCER: BD Wong, Tony Award–winning star of M. Butterfly. June 25, 1990.
DHH: Hey, Bradd, what’s up?
BD: You heard about this whole Miss Saigon business?
DHH: You mean, the musical? In London?
BD: Jonathan Pryce is playing an Asian pimp.
DHH: Yeah, Roz Chao saw it there. Said his eyes are all taped up and everything. That would never happen here.
BD: They’re bringing the show to Broadway.
DHH: I know. But this is America—they’re not gonna cast a white guy here.
BD: They have.
DHH: You’re sure the actor’s white? Maybe he’s mixed race. Nowadays, it’s so hard to tell. He could have a Caucasian father, so his last name wouldn’t sound Asian or maybe he’s one of those Korean adoptees, or—
BD: David, it’s Jonathan Pryce. (Pause) The producer’s saying they conducted this worldwide talent search, and they couldn’t find any Asian qualified to play the part.
DHH: They can’t do that.
BD: That’s what a lot of us think.
DHH: Yellow face? In this day and age? It’s—it’s—did someone suddenly turn the clock back to 1920? Are we all going to smear shoe polish on our faces, and start singing “Mammy”?
BD: We thought if you’d be willing to write a letter—
DHH : You bet I will. Trust me, they won’t get away with it.
(Sound of keys tapping on an IBM Selectric.)
Dear Actors’ Equity:
THE ANNOUNCER: The national union for stage actors.
DHH: I learned some news today, which left me feeling surprised and dismayed . . .
THE ANNOUNCER: New York Times, July 13, 1990:
NEW YORK TIMES, JULY 13, 1990: Miss Saigon casting protested. Asian American[s] . . . [have complained about] the casting of a Caucasian in one of the show’s principal [Asian] roles . . . David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award–winning playwright of M. Butterfly, registered his protest . . . in a letter sent to Actors’ Equity.
DHH: I had dared to suppose that the yellow face days of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu had been relegated forever to the closets of historical kitsch . . . Mr. Pryce is an excellent actor, but I would be equally upset were he cast as [an African American character like] Boy Willie in [August Wilson’s play] The Piano Lesson.
THE ANNOUNCER: Cameron Mackintosh, producer of Miss Saigon:
CAMERON MACKINTOSH: This is a tempest in an Oriental teapot.
DHH (To the audience): Actors’ Equity union took my side in the casting dispute and arranged a meeting with the Miss Saigon team, including producer Cameron Mackintosh.
CAMERON MACKINTOSH: The gall of it, the sheer hypocrisy! This is all because BD Wong wants a job, isn’t it? And the fact that you have made a public spectacle of the issue—I don’t believe we can work any longer in this atmosphere. How can you support such a blatant restriction of artistic freedom?
THE ANNOUNCER: Vinnie Liff, casting director, Miss Saigon:
VINNIE LIFF : David, if you know any Asian actor who’d be right for that part—forty to fifty years old, classical training, worldwide stature—please, give me his name. We have searched literally around the world.
DHH: Actually, I called John Lone.
THE ANNOUNCER: Star of The Last Emperor.
DHH: He said his manager had contacted your office to say he was interested in the part, but no one ever called them back.
THE ANNOUNCER: Bernard Jacobs, president of the Shubert Theatres:
BERNARD JACOBS: This man is trying to stir up trouble. That’s why you sent that letter of yours to the papers.
DHH: No, I—
CAMERON MACKINTOSH: If you were really seeking to do something constructive, why would you have turned this into a circus? dp n="23" folio="11" ?
BERNARD JACOBS: You sent your letter to that reporter. To stir up trouble.
DHH: No, I—didn’t.
BERNARD JACOBS: Now you’re lying. This man is a liar. I don’t know why we’re even listening to him.
CAMERON MACKINTOSH: The atmosphere is poisoned. Unless conditions improve, I don’t see how I can br...