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For Playwright Hwang, Mediums Change While Themes Stay the Same

On screen as on stage, `M. Butterfly' writer addresses race relations

DAVID HENRY HWANG has made the difficult switch from writing plays to writing movies. His ``Golden Gate,'' directed by John Madden, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Hwang has already established himself as an important force in American theater. His first play, ``FOB,'' written as a senior at Yale, opened in the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1980 where it won the Obie for Best New Play.

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Since then, he has collaborated with Philip Glass, won a variety of awards, grants, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has written screenplays for Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack. His Tony Award-winning ``M. Butterfly'' has been produced in 36 countries around the world, making him a phenomenon among young American playwrights.

``Golden Gate'' is a highly stylized fable about a white FBI agent who frames a Chinese immigrant on a phony charge. When the man is released after 10 years in prison, he is rejected by his own people and commits suicide. In remorse, the FBI agent (played by Matt Dillon) tries to make amends to the man's daughter (Joan Chen), watching over her like a good angel - until she learns the truth. A love story about an impossible love, the film defies Hollywood realism, relying on some unusual theatrical tactics to layer the story with symbolism and social commentary. The form, with its nod toward ``magic realism,'' is meant to underscore the artificial sentiments of the period.

Hwang finds writing for the movies very different from the stage, where, he says, the author is still king.

Regardless of the medium, his motivation for taking on a particular subject remains the same.

``The whole reason,'' he says, ``is to reveal something to myself. I don't know how the characters will evolve. I have a sense of a beginning and an ending. But I often compare writing to a road trip. I'm driving from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, but I don't know how I'm going to get there. The process of finding the road is the exciting thing about writing.''

``Golden Gate'' is a spiritual journey, he says. The idea for the film came from some Chinese-American friends.

``They told me about these people who had been hounded by the FBI in the 1950s, how they were prosecuted for sending money [innocently] back home to their families in China,'' says Hwang, who is Chinese-American.

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``They did go to jail and were ostracized by their people when they got out, and then one of them committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. This story knocked around in my head - because Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. Every minority has its particular problems. African-Americans have a lot of very negative stereotypes to deal with, but except in extreme cases, no one assumes that they are going back to Africa. Whereas with Asian Americans, you can have been here for five or six generations, and some people will still say, `Oh, you speak really good English.' Which is just irritating except when it has consequences for your life.''

In many of Hwang's plays, interracial relationships become the starting point for working out racial issues.

In his own marriage to someone of another race, he has seen that if a couple chooses to struggle with those issues, at least they know what the enemy is - what needs to be overcome in terms of differing cultural views and prejudices. ``If you have the courage,'' he says, ``[such a relationship] can be an advantage.''

It's a difficult time for race relations right now, Hwang says, citing the rise of political nationalism and religious fundamentalism in a variety of forms as the cause of much that goes awry.

``Maybe I'm naive, but I like to think this is the storm before the calm. What is going on is that resentments [on the part of minorities] that have been buried a long time are out in the open. Caucasians are now becoming a plurality rather than a majority and that inspires a certain amount of insecurity among white people. Most people are very defensive and sensitive, and nobody trusts anybody. I do feel we will get beyond it. I cling to the belief that we have more in common than not.... Everybody thinks they're the victim, and the other person is the persecutor.''

Hwang points out that the FBI agent in the film is not a heavy. He is a man who makes a serious mistake and faces the consequences. ``Golden Gate,'' says Hwang, is about getting beyond racial hatred.

``I want to believe everybody has the capacity to struggle - to understand what they have done and make amends.... There is a desire on the part of all of us to do the right thing. Now, it may be balanced by a desire to be selfish, but our `better nature,' as they say, exists, and I'd like to try to emphasize that.''

* David Henry Hwang delivers a free public lecture, ``Authenticity and Asian-American Art or: It's OK to be Wrong,' at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, Mass., on April 15 at 8 p.m.

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