The Playgoer: Outing David Henry Hwang's Boogeyman

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Outing David Henry Hwang's Boogeyman

You may have noticed in the NYT review of David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" Ben Brantley's own squirmishness over handling the delicate issue in the play of an unnamed Times reporter (billed officially as "Name Omitted on Advice of Counsel") Hwang accuses of slandering his father with atomic spying charges.

Well Kate Taylor at the Sun has done the simple legwork of digging up who he's talking about:

The second act of "Yellow Face" describes a government investigation in which Mr. Hwang's father, Henry Hwang, was involved in the late 1990s. A front-page story in the Times on May 12, 1999, reported that federal officials were investigating the source of tens of millions of dollars that had been transferred from the Central Bank of China into a California bank founded by Henry Hwang. David Henry Hwang was mentioned in the story, because he for a time sat on the bank's board. No charges were ever brought in the case.


The May 12, 1999, story was written by two investigative reporters, Tim Golden and Jeff Gerth. Mr. Hwang, for his purposes, conflated them. In the interview within the play, the character of Mr. Hwang refers to other stories the unnamed reporter has covered: the unauthorized sale of satellite technology to China, the investigation into political contributions by Asian-Americans, Wen Ho Lee, Whitewater — all of which Mr. Gerth either broke or participated in covering. But Mr. Gerth, reached by phone and informed about the scenario in the play, said he'd never spoken to Mr. Hwang. Mr. Golden, who was the lead reporter on the California bank story, said he had a vague memory of calling Mr. Hwang and having a brief conversation, in which Mr. Hwang declined to talk about the issues involving the bank. But nothing like what happens in the play's interview scene — in which the reporter as much as confesses to thinking that Asian-Americans have divided loyalties — occurred.

Golden--and Taylor's piece--present evidence that Hwang may at the very least be exaggerating such a bias in the reporting of this particular case. Without having seen the play, it's hard for me to say how far, though, he stretches the truth for clearly dramatic--and satiric--purposes.

Strange, with this and the charges of "revisionism" against The Farnsworth Invention, we're hearing a lot about playwrights' responsibilities to historical facts. I think this is a more pressing issue in mass-media events when millions of people may be presented with a "docudrama" expecting reportage. But with its limited audience, shouldn't theatre artists be granted even more imaginative leeway? It's one thing to slander someone by name from the public stage, but Hwang's play seems to clearly present itself as a fantasy--based on fact, yes, but his subjective memories and impressions of the facts.


Anonymous said...

hmmmm, interesting how jeff gerth claims to never have spoken to hwang.

despite winning a pulitzer (?!? --and i thought drama pulitzer winners were sketchy), jeff gerth, it seems, has a history of difficulty with getting facts straight himself -- which i think you'll agree is vastly more problematic in journalism than in the arts.

see for yourself...

(the wen ho lee stuff is at the tail end of the article.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know Jeff Gerth. I do know David Henry Hwang and consider him to be a person of great integrity.

Though there are fantasy elements in YELLOW FACE, as Blanche says, when it comes to what's important, he seems to tell the truth. Certainly he flags which elements are factual and which fantasy pretty clearly. I left the play persuaded by Hwang's version.

He pretty clearly states that the TIMES reporter he talked to in real life collaborated a lot on TIMES articles and was particularly energetic when it came to spreading Whitewater bilge.

By the way, it's a remarkable play.