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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Playwright David Henry Hwang explored the clash of cultures between East and West in "M. Butterfly," his Tony Award-winning play set in 1960s China. He revisits those themes in a new play opening tonight on Broadway. It's called "Chinglish." And as Jeff Lunden reports, instead of a period piece, this time, it's ripped from the headlines.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: "Chinglish" starts with a PowerPoint presentation. An American businessman named Daniel is talking about the challenges of doing business in China. One of the biggest is Chinglish, the sometimes wildly funny, sometimes terribly inaccurate translations from Chinese to English, says playwright David Henry Hwang.
DAVID HENRY HWANG: And I think there's a whole kind of subculture of ferreting out Chinglish signs. The first one that we show in the play is to take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty, which is a sign that means slippery slopes ahead.
LUNDEN: And with that, the audience gets to watch Daniel in flashback negotiate those slippery slopes and occasionally fall on his face. He's trying to convince Chinese bureaucrats to hire his Cleveland, Ohio, company to make English signs for a new cultural center in a provincial capital. Director Leigh Silverman was working with David Henry Hwang on a play a few years ago when he approached her about "Chinglish." He told her...
LEIGH SILVERMAN: I have this idea. I don't know if it's going to work. It's a kind of "Glengarry Glen Ross," but it's romantic, and it's set in Guiyang, China, and I want the characters to have their dignity of their own language. I want them to speak in Chinese. And it's a comedy. And I thought, OK, great, a bilingual sex comedy, sounds really fun.
LUNDEN: In this scene, the vice minister of culture, Xi Yan, is trying to give the businessman, Daniel, some inside information in Chinglish.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHINGLISH")
LUNDEN: Much of the fun of the play comes from the misunderstandings, large and small, that come from characters who literally can't understand each other. David Henry Hwang estimates that at least a quarter of the play is in Mandarin. The audience finds out what everyone is saying by reading surtitles projected onto the set.
HWANG: It seems like the audiences really respond to and embrace the titles, to some extent, because the titles provide a lot of the comedy, and there's something satisfying about the fact that the audience knows what everybody on stage is saying even though the characters may not be able to understand each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CHINGLISH")
LUNDEN: And the surtitle reads: He says their crops failed long ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUNDEN: With the exception of the actor playing Daniel, all the other actors in "Chinglish" are bilingual. Jennifer Lim plays Xi Yan, the vice minister of culture who has an affair with Daniel. Lim grew up in Hong Kong, is fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and well knows the cultural divide between East and West.
: I think one of the brilliant things about this play is how, you know, on the nose, how on point it is, you know, in terms of David's understanding of the sort of Chinese psyche, of how, I think, Americans view the Chinese, how the Chinese view themselves.
LUNDEN: Director Leigh Silverman says this kind of global perspective plays out in an intimate scene between Daniel and Xi Yan.
SILVERMAN: There's an exchange that happens in the play where she says: One day, we will be strong. And Daniel, our American businessman, says to her: What do you mean? You're China. You're strong now. And she says: Now? No, someday. And he says: No, now. I think it encapsulates this point of view that Chinese people feel that they're not there yet, but they will be, and the American paranoia that China is actually this beast that will not be tamed. And I think it's a really beautiful encapsulation of two very different and equally true points of view.
LUNDEN: "Chinglish" opens on Broadway tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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