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David Henry Hwang Honored At 2012 Inge Festival

 The four-day William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kansas includes dozens of plays, readings and workshops, and concludes with a salute to a particular playwright or composer.  

Joining a list that includes Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Stephen Sondheim is this year's honoree, David Henry Hwang, whose body of work has been informed by his Asian-American heritage.

Every April, for 31 years, the quaint town of Independence, Kansas has become flooded with theater artists and theater lovers for the William Inge Theater Festival, and part of the appeal is its yearly salute to a noted playwright or composer.

Making the List

Festival director Peter Ellenstein explains how various parties came to select this year's honoree, David Henry Hwang.

"Each year, following the festival, our guest artist and our national advisory board get together and have a knock down-drag out fight about who should be given the award the following year, and we come up with a short list," he says. "And David has been showing up on the list quite regularly for the last few years.

"The wonderful thing about this award is that you do the research and find out just how deep and broad their work is. In David's case, it's covered everything, from musicals to movies to opera to straight dramas -  eastern influence, western influence, and a lot of social commentary because he's very active in Asian-American and theater communities."

Interviewed from his home in New York City, Hwang says he is sincerely appreciative yet a little surprised by the honor.

"I was pretty shocked because I didn't know if I had enough of a body of work to be considered for something as iconic as the Inge award," Hwang says.  "And since a lot of my work has to do with east-west issues, did they want to bring that many Asian actors in? As the Brits say, I was gobsmacked and shocked in a good way that they'd want to honor me this way and think of my work in that vein."

The Story Never Ends

Hwang is perhaps best known for his Tony Award-winning play, M. Butterfly, the provocative story of a French diplomat who falls in love with a male opera singer posing as a woman. He's juggled other plays, like last year's critically acclaimed Chinglish, with work on operas, screenplays, and musicals - for example, he contributed to the book for the smash Elton John-Tim Rice version of Aida, which Starlight Theatre is producing this summer at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Hwang is asked if he deliberately set out to bring Asian stories and characters to the mass audience, or just write compelling narratives that happen to have Asian influences

"I think that it's been generally telling the best stories I can and I seem to be attracted to these east/west subjects," he says. "That said, there was a period - not when I first started writing but first started having work produced and getting known a little - where I embraced the banner of being somebody who was bringing Asian-American theater to New York, to the mainstream. So that was about 3 or 4 years, then I got tired of that being my raison d'etre. Generally it's writing the best plays I can and I seem to be interested in this particular soil of cultural issues, and east/west work."

Career Opportunities

While his work has naturally employed many Asian actors, the bigger picture tells a discouraging tale. A recent study  by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition examined 400 plays produced in New York over the past five years. It found that while actors of color increased from 14 to 22 percent, Caucasian actors played 80 percent of the roles. Hwang moderated a panel about the issue in February, and notes that roles for Asian-American actually decreased.

"If you bring up statistics like this, I think people are open and surprised - open to receiving them and surprised by what they imply," he says.

"I have seen more Asian actors; there's a bigger pool out there every year, and they're better trained, and that's very hopeful. What a lot of the actors were arguing for in this case was just the ability to go into an audition for roles that aren't specifically Asian. If it's something like the friend, or something where the race isn't signified - where it could be anybody - why can't they audition too? They should at least get the chance to audition. Not that the result be equal, but that the opportunity to be equal."

Those statistics should see an upswing next season. New York's Signature Theatre has named David Henry Hwang their year-long resident playwright, and will stage a series of his plays, including a new one.

The William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kansas runs from April 18 - 21, 2012. Artists in their Own Words is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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