12:03am

Thu June 28, 2012
American Dreams: Then And Now

Great Expectations, And Some Hope Of Meeting Them

Originally published on Thu June 28, 2012 12:34 pm

David Henry Hwang is a playwright from Los Angeles, currently living in New York, who has dealt with issues of cultural identity in his work, especially as it pertains to the Asian-American experience. He spoke to NPR's Morning Edition about his thoughts on the American dream.

"I define the American dream as the ability to imagine a way that you want your life to turn out, and have a reasonable hope that you can achieve that.

"I think about my play Yellow Face. There is a character who is based on my father, who is a big America booster, who idolizes Frank Sinatra and the pop culture figures of his age. Then at a certain point in his career, he becomes a banker, and he's accused by The New York Times of laundering money for China, which my father actually was [accused of doing] in the late '90s.

"As Asian-Americans, the charge that is often lobbed against us is sort of the least original: the idea that somehow we're perpetual foreigners, that we can't be trusted, and that even my father, who was patriotic to the point that it was kind of a joke among his children, would be accused of being disloyal to America. And that seems to me to be a pretty fundamental betrayal of the American dream.

"There is something very unique in American iconography about this notion of the pursuit of happiness. There are a lot of other cultures in the world where the idea that happiness is something that is written into the fabric of the culture and even the government is kind of hard to conceive — because you don't necessarily think that happiness is a logical goal. So I think that the American dream is about being able to imagine a life, and then having some expectation that you can achieve that life."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here on MORNING EDITION this summer we're exploring the American dream. It figures into our politics and culture, our personal aspirations and public debate. And as we're about to hear, the American dream is also a theme for artists.

DAVID HENRY HWANG: My name's David Henry Hwang. I'm a playwright; originally born in Los Angeles, but currently living in New York. I define the American dream as the ability to imagine a way that you want your life to turn out, and have a reasonable hope that you can achieve that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "YELLOW FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (as character) How can you say that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: (as character) You don't know how much people want to come to America.

HWANG: I think about my play "Yellow Face." And there is a character who is based on my father, who is a big America booster.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "YELLOW FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (as character) Now, I am finally living my real life, here in America.

HWANG: ...who idolizes Frank Sinatra and - sort of the pop culture figures of his age. And then at a certain point in his career, he becomes a banker.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "YELLOW FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (as character) I looked around at my office on the 39th floor. My kids all in top colleges.

HWANG: And he's accused by the New York Times of laundering money for China - which my father actually was, in the late '90s. So the notion that - as Asian-Americans, the charge that is often lobbed against us is sort of the least original; the idea that somehow we're perpetual foreigners, that we can't be trusted; and that even my father, who was patriotic to the point that it was kind of a joke among, you know, us - his children - would be accused of being disloyal to America. And that seems, to me, to be a pretty fundamental betrayal of the American dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "YELLOW FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (as character) I have dared to suppose that the yellow face days of Charlie Chan and Fu Man Chu have been relegated forever to the closets of historical kitsch.

HWANG: You know, there's something very unique in American iconography about this notion of the pursuit of happiness. You know, there are a lot of other cultures in the world where the idea that happiness is something that is written into the fabric of the culture, and even the government, is kind of hard to conceive - because you don't necessarily think that happiness is a logical goal. So I think that the American dream is about being able to imagine a life, and then having some expectation that you can achieve that life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: David Henry Hwang is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. His work includes "M. Butterfly," "Chinglish" and "Yellow Face."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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