Performing American Identity: the plays of David Henry Hwang

Johnson, Martha (2017) Performing American Identity: the plays of David Henry Hwang. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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What does it mean to perform an American identity? From the time of his
breakout play, FOB, in 1980, playwright David Henry Hwang has grappled with this
question. Over the 35 years of his career, he has consistently been described as a
Chinese American, or Asian American, playwright and his work does indeed reflect
aspects of the Asian American drama movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s, as it does
also aspects of US multiculturalism in general. He has staged stories of the Chinese
American experience and explored questions of race, culture, and identity.
The term Asian American is itself, however, contested and complex. Meanwhile,
Hwang’s privileged and Christian upbringing has bred suspicion of his right to interpret
and stage the experience of the broader Asian American community.
In his plays, Hwang reinforces stereotypes, while simultaneously undermining
them. The result is a view of identity defined by, but resistant to, definitions based on
race, culture, and gender.
Few playwrights from marginalized ethnic groups have enjoyed mainstream
success in the US. Hwang has. In contrast to previous Asian American playwrights, who
have struggled to find an audience beyond their identity-based theatre companies,
Hwang’s plays seem to transcend specific personal, racial, or cultural experience, and
as a consequence have been widely produced, published, studied, and anthologized.
Most of Hwang’s plays are inspired by works in the American dramatic canon,
suggesting his desire to situate the Asian American experience in the broader American
In this study, I will analyze selected plays by David Henry Hwang. I will consider
Hwang’s role as a voice for Asian Americans and the implications of that role. I will
place his work in the context of the broader discourse on American identity and argue
that is it insufficient to overly privilege his Asian identity in reading his work. Finally, I will
explore some of the reasons his work transcends the confines of racial or cultural
identity, and has found a place in the American dramatic canon.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of American Studies (former - to 2014)
Depositing User: Jackie Webb
Date Deposited: 01 May 2018 09:04
Last Modified: 01 May 2018 09:04


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