Playwright's works bring the Asian-American experience to Minnesota

Flower Drum Song
David Henry Hwang's 'Flower Drum Song' is based on a Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway show which he has updated to reflect the true Asian American experience.
Image courtesy Mu Performing Arts

Over the next year, Twin Cities theaters will present three plays by David Henry Hwang, perhaps best known for his show "M. Butterfly." Hwang has a reputation for his nuanced view of the Asian-American experience.

Flower Drum Song started life in 1958 as a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. It was the story of a mail-order bride from China who arrives in San Francisco.

The show explored the conflict between first generation immigrants and their more Americanized children. It wasn't Rogers and Hammerstein's best work, but it became important for one simple reason.

"'Flower Drum Song' happens to be the only Broadway musical in history written about Asian Americans," David Henry Hwang said.

Hwang said, while there have been shows about Asians, Flower Drum Song's attempt to portray the specific Asian-American experience caught and held the attention of the Asian-American community for years. Some people loved it, and the film version that followed. Others hated it because they saw it as simplistic and stereotypical.

David Henry Hwang
After a 30 year career in theater David Henry Hwang says he is excited to see three of his plays being performed back to back in the Twin Cities
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

This love-hate relationship was one of the reasons that led Hwang to ask the Rogers and Hammerstein Foundation for permission to rewrite the show.

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"I tried to write a musical that would feel like a musical from the so-called golden age of Broadway musicals," he said. "[Have it] feel like an old-fashioned musical but still have contemporary cultural values."

Hwang's version of Flower Drum Song opened in New York in 2002, and toured nationally. It's only now the show is playing in local theaters - and that's where Theater Mu, Minnesota's foremost Asian-American performance company, comes in.

"'Flower Drum Song' happens to be the only Broadway musical in history written about Asian Americans,"

In their rehearsal room in an old warehouse in Minneapolis actors and dancers are working on a routine. Four young men wielding huge chop sticks dance with young women in giant takeaway boxes. The show is destined for the McKnight Theater at the Ordway in St Paul.

The tunes and characters may be the same, but the tone has changed. Gone is the mail-order bride, now she is a refugee.

Director Rick Shiomi said Hwang has introduced layer upon layer of meaning in the script. He said this makes it a wonderful challenge for the actors.

"Because there is always a covert meaning of the line," he said. "And then there is also the emotional meaning underneath that, and there is the political framework he is talking about."

Rick Shiomi and David Henry Hwang have known each other for years. As a result Hwang has visited Minneapolis during rehearsal.

Shiomi said, while Hwang works on Broadway and beyond with international hits such as M. Butterfly, his roots are in small theater.

Rick Shiomi
When Rick Shiomi first created Theater Mu in 1992, he had to find Asian-Americans interested in acting and train them, and work with writers to create plays his company could perform.
Image courtesy of Mu Performing Arts

"In some ways we are a little bit different focused," Shiomi said. "We are focused on the story and on the characters, and I think that has been interesting for David to see, our work in that area."

In the Theater Mu Flower Drum Song, Randy Reyes plays the father. And this isn't the only role he'll have in a play by David Henry Hwang.

Reyes will perform the lead role in the Guthrie's production of "M Butterfly" next year, and he's trying out for Theater Mu's production of "Yellowface," Hwang's latest play. That one opens in February. Reyes said it's a rare opportunity for actors and audiences.

"I think it's a dream," he said. "I don't think that happens very often, and especially a playwright who represents so much of who I am, as an Asian-American playwright."

St. Paul Pioneer Press Theater critic Dominic Papatola agrees it's significant that Hwang is working here, but he also credits the way Rick Shiomi has worked with Theater Mu.

Randy Reyes
Randy Reyes took part in workshops for 'Flower Drum Song' while he was a student at Julliard. He says things have now come full circle, as he will not only play in the Theater Mu show, but will play the lead role in Hwang's 'M. Butterfly' at the Guthrie last year. He is also auditioning for a role in Mu's production of 'Yellowface' in February.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Theater Mu, in the last handful of years, has really matured and they are becoming a theater to be reckoned with," Papatola said. "And having David come in gives them an additional imprimatur."

For his part, David Henry Hwang is excited about having three shows almost back to back in the Twin Cities. He is looking forward to seeing Midwestern audience reaction to his reworking of a Broadway classic.