The Short Version: David Henry Hwang’s semi-autobiographical play about what it means to be Asian-American – and whether or not titles like that should still even apply when we’re all just people who put on different ‘faces’ depending on the day.
The Review: I love DHH’s writing. M. Butterfly was a curious and strange play that I’d have loved to’ve seen actually performed and his new play Chinglish should be… well, interesting to say the least. I was only vaguely aware of the tumult that spawned this play – all of this drama over Jonathan Pryce playing an Asian character in Miss Saigon was before I really tuned in to the theater world. I’d heard about most of it, honestly, in reference to this play – that DHH had written a farce about it that flopped hard on Broadway and that he’d taken some time off from the theater after that had happened. This play is his return.
It’s a play that mixes the sort of David Hare ‘docu-theater’ with some of the vaguely magical realist stuff that Sarah Ruhl and even DHH tend towards. There’s pieces of reality – appearances from senators and journalists and actors/actresses, not to mention David and his family – but also pieces of pure invention. The twist at the end was a nice wink – and a nice way to wrap up an otherwise rather thorny play. See, it’s all about how we present ourselves and the identities that we loop ourselves into in order to fit into the world’s neat construction. But the world isn’t neatly constructed and these identities are rarely our truest selves. Except, to steal a line from a book that I thought was otherwise absolutely terrible (coughcoughThe Tragedy of Arthurcoughcough), dye sets in and that which was affectation becomes our truest self. What’s to say that the realities we create for ourselves and propagate to others can’t become our basic identities? What’s to say that an European man can’t effectively become an Asian man, simply by the way he was presented? Hwang addresses all of this in the play and, to be honest, never really comes to a conclusion.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. At the same time, he does what only the very best writers and playwrights can do: he forces us to examine the human condition and, for the time we spent with his play, we’re seeking answers. That’s an amazing thing about theater and an amazing thing about this play – we might not find what we’re seeking, but we’re forced to look where we otherwise might’ve just ignored.