On July 22, an audience from around the world pulled back the curtains of their computer screens to reveal playwrights David Henry Hwang (ACC 2011, 2012) and Candace Chong Mui Ngam (ACC 2004, 2012) on Zoom’s centerstage. Moderated by critic/scholar Ken Smith, ACC’s online public program series, inDialogue, brought together these longstanding colleagues in conversation around their collaborations, processes, and cultural exchange.
Their story began with Candace’s arrival in New York for her yearlong ACC Fellowship exploring theater in the United States. She visited performances and workshops, rehearsals and readings. Then, one day, she came across David moderating a reading at The Lark Theatre. “I approached David after the reading,” Candace said. They grabbed a coffee, discussed her work, and marked the first chapter in their 15-year friendship.
Among their many ensuing collaborations is David’s bilingual Broadway play Chinglish. “I am not bilingual,” David explained, “I realized I could do it if I worked with a translator.” At the same time, he needed a playwright to go beyond the literal. “Translation is one thing, in terms of being accurate and faithful…but a playwright has to be able to write dialogue that works in the writer’s mouth.” Candace was the first person he thought of. Little did he know, Candace was working on much more than a translation.
“Candace and I were sitting in the back row of the rehearsal room,” Ken remembered, “and when she didn’t need to work as a translator…she was writing [her play] Wild Boar, or trying to. She kept shaking her head saying ‘I can’t write this.’ But then she realized, ‘David’s not equipped to write Chinglish either.’” Both playwrights have brought inspiration to one another. “I remember that scene vividly,” Candace said, “When I’m working on my original script. I always feel depressed and I worry too much. I feel like ‘I don’t know these things, how can I write about it.’ But spending time with David in the rehearsal room, I really feel like, ‘Why can’t I just do it? I can write it and then rewrite it.’”
“What I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older,” David replied, “is that I love to rewrite, but it’s a relatively new skill…when I was starting out, rewriting was hard. You have this feeling like, ‘I managed to create something, if I start to take it apart, I’m afraid it will all just collapse.’ As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained more techniques; therefore, rewriting is easier. Conversely, first drafts are harder, because first drafts are really where you have to transcend your technique—transcend whatever tricks that you have as a writer and get your hands dirty to find something that’s true.”
Finding that truth is something both David and Candace have honed throughout their careers. “For all their difference,” Ken noted, “in gender and generation, in country and culture, they share a major trait, which is the way they look at their society—and not just capturing society, but seeing where it’s going, and in some ways eerily predicting what will happen with uncanny accuracy.”
What truths should be told and when? Watch our highlight video to learn more about the current events and contexts inspiring David and Candace, and how they respond through their art. “Art can’t save the world,” Candace wrote following the talk, “but it reminds people why the world is worth saving”