David Hwang to be honored at Theater Mu Gal

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David Hwang will be one of the guests being honored at Theater Mu’s upcoming Gala, which is being held on April 7 at the new MacPhail Center in downtown Minneapolis.

David currently lives in New York City, but when I spoke with him last week he was on West Coast, in Los Angeles, his city of birth. I caught him in between meetings with film producers and other Hollywood types, discussing the possibility of some screen work.

“I do love film, but it’s always secondary to my stage work,” said Hwang, who is well recognized as an innovative and prolific play write. “I’m primarily a play write, though I’ve written in a lot of other mediums. As a writer, in film, you don’t have total control over the end product. It would be nice to be part of projects that also reach a larger mass audience,” he continued, comparing the big screen to the stage.

Mu Performing Arts and sponsoring architectural and engineering firm Ellerbe Becket will present the first annual Award for Achievement in Asian American Performing Arts to Japanese taiko drumming artist Iris Shiraishi and renowned Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang on April 7 at the new MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. The presentation coincides with the Mu Performing Arts 2008 Gala benefit.

The award, conceived by Mu artistic director Rick Shiomi, will honor one local and one national Asian American artist each year for his or her accomplishment in and contribution to the arts. “It is a way for Mu Performing Arts to recognize those artists who have had a significant impact,” Shiomi explains. “Their work has benefited not only Asian Americans, but all Americans.” The first recipients of the Award for Achievement represent both the theatrical and musical poles of Mu’s creative energy.

Internationally renowned playwright David Henry Hwang was a natural choice for the inaugural award. As Shiomi states, “If there is anyone whose name is synonymous with the success of Asian American theater in the past three decades, it is David Hwang.” His acclaimed works, including FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, M. Butterfly, and his most recent play Yellowface, bring the experience of Asian Americans to a national audience. Hwang has also been an avid supporter of Asian Americans in the arts, having both served on the advisory board for Mu and assisted in the early development stages for the company’s first musical, Walleye Kid: The Musical, which was lately remounted at Ordway Center’s McKnight Theatre.

Mr. Hwang spoke of his early days as a writer in Vancouver, where he, Mu’s artistic director Rick Shiomi, and other Asian American artists worked to define Asian American art, setting the foundation for what we have today. Although he humbly insists that “Rick and I are kind of old hands now,” they were part of the first generation of Asian Americans, and creating an artistic identity was on their shoulders.

It is this collaboration with Shiomi, over two decades ago, when they were both “birthed as play writes,” that has led to Hwang’s continued involvement in the Twin Cities and his invitation to the Mu Gala this year.

Speaking of the current state of Asian American artists in America, Mr. Hwang says there is a very vibrant community now. “We were kind of on the ground floor” of being Asian American and being an artist. “There has been great growth in the past thirty years.”

It’s difficult to define the present state of Asian American artists, however, said Hwang. As he became more recognized as an author and play write, he was part of an unprecedented movement. Now, for the first time, “there are more than one generation of Asian Americans working at the same time.”

David Hwang makes a case for cities like the Twin Cities and Chicago, in the Midwest, as the new hotbeds of Asian American art. “Take an institution like Mu. So much of the talent is youth.” These cities are the growth areas, with large Asian American communities that haven’t been there before. “Mu has done a good job laying the groundwork for some great possibilities for the arts scene here.” There is interaction between different groups of the Asian American community, even as they become more and more a part of the mainstream.

The fact that David Hwang is Asian American, of course, is not the single element that defines his identity or his art. It is, however, an intricate part of who he is. “Identity, that’s a complicated question,” he said, but his heritage and membership in a certain community influences whatever he does. Though his connection to China, the birthplace of his parents, was not strong during his youth, he says it has gotten stronger as he has gotten older. These days, however, he finds himself traveling to China frequently. “There is interest,” David says, “in Broadway style theater in China. So they’re interested in me.”

While avant-garde is not widely recognized in the West, Hwang says that in the larger cities, “some of it is pretty edgy. There is a whole generation” of Chinese “that has lived with American influence.”

The Mu Performing Arts Gala is April 7, with catering and a silent auction beginning at 6 pm and a performance program beginning at 7 pm. Tickets are $35 in advance, $45 at the door, and may be purchased by phone at 612-824-4804 or online at www.muperformingarts.org.

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