David Henry Hwang is an American playwright, librettist, and screenwriter, as well as a theater professor. Hilton Als of the New Yorker has described him as "the most successful Chinese-American playwright this country has produced."
He was born in Los Angeles, California to Henry Yuan Hwang, a banker, and Dorothy Hwang, a piano teacher. The oldest of three children, he has two younger sisters. He received a Bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University and attended the Yale School of Drama, taking literature classes. He left once workshopping of new plays began since he already had a play on in New York. His first play was produced at the Okada House dormitory at Stanford after he briefly studied playwriting with Sam Shepard and María Irene Fornés.
Hwang's early plays concerned the role of the Chinese American and Asian American in the modern day world. His first play, the Obie Award-winning FOB, depicts the contrasts and conflicts between established Asian Americans and "Fresh Off the Boat" newcomer immigrants. The play was developed by the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and premiered in 1980 Off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. Papp went on to produce four more of Hwang's plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama The Dance and the Railroad, which tells the story of a former Chinese opera star working as a coolie laborer in the nineteenth century, and the Drama Desk Award-nominated Family Devotions, a darkly comic take on the effects of Western religion on a Chinese family. Those three plays added up to a "Trilogy of Chinese America" as the author described.
After this, Papp also produced the show Sound and Beauty, the omnibus title to two Hwang one-act plays set in Japan. At this time, Hwang started to work on projects for the small screen. A television movie, Blind Alleys, written by Hwang and Frederic Kimball and starring Pat Morita and Cloris Leachman, was produced in 1985 and followed a television version of The Dance and the Railroad.
His next play Rich Relations, was his first full-length to feature non-Asian characters. It premiered at the Second Stage Theatre in New York and, though not a success, did prepare him for his work on his best-known play, M. Butterfly, for which he won a Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, the John Gassner Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play. It was also his second play to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play is a deconstruction of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly shedding light on news reports of the relationship between a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, and Shi Pei Pu, a male Chinese opera singer who purportedly convinced Boursicot that he was a woman throughout their twenty-year relationship. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and made Hwang the first Asian American to win the Tony Award for Best Play.