David Henry Hwang, who won a Tony Award in 1988 for “M. Butterfly,” has had six shows on Broadway, but he hasn’t had a play on the Great White Way since “Golden Child” in 1998. According to Hwang, plays are his most personal form, so he is more excited than usual to have his newest one, “Chinglish,” come to Broadway.
The comedy, which begins performances at the Longacre Theatre tomorrow and officially opens Oct. 27, is about the hilarity and politics that ensue when a U.S. businessman tries to secure a lucrative contract in China for his family’s sign-making firm. The lead producers of “Chinglish,” Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, are bringing the play to Broadway after a sold-out run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“In its own way, I would call it a groundbreaking comedy,” Richards said in an interview. “There’s never been a play, a comedy like ‘Chinglish,’ on Broadway. It explores relations today between the Chinese and Americans and our relationship. It’s very much cutting-edge in its way.”
The play was inspired by Hwang’s own business trips to China, which he has taken in the past six years amid China’s interest in Broadway-style musicals. “I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person who’s written a Broadway show,” Hwang said. “So people would call me over for meetings and there’d always be plans to build a theater district in China.”
It was on these trips when Hwang encountered the bizarre signs in “Chinglish” – bungled translations of Chinese phrases into English, such as “Deformed Man’s Toilet” for “Handicapped Restrooms,” which he saw at an otherwise beautiful new arts center in Shanghai.
“I thought it would be an instant jumping-off point for a show about doing business in China,” said Hwang, who said he isn’t bilingual himself though he studied Chinese in college. “Language is such a huge component of doing business in another country or interacting in another country. So I started to think, it might be interesting to do a play where the Chinese characters actually have the dignity of their own language. So the characters who would speak Mandarin do speak Mandarin.” As a result, “Chinglish” is performed in English and Mandarin with supertitles.
Hwang is one of the most prominent Asian-American playwrights working in the theater today, a time when very few plays about Asians or Asian-Americans ever make it to Broadway. “Chinglish” is more closely tied to topics of globalization and the intersection of U.S. and Chinese business and culture, than to more traditional notions of Asian-American identity. But the play provokes questions about bilingualism and relationships within communities and cultures – subjects with which Asian-Americans can easily identify.
“Our theater and our popular culture and our stories should resonate on an international level and we should be aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world,” Hwang said. “Particularly as Americans in terms of our relationship to China.”