A lifetime of dealing with miscommunications caused by poor language skills plus recent trips to China where memorably mistranslated English signs were inescapable formed the inspiration for David Henry Hwang’s new comedy Chinglish. The play directed by Leigh Silverman opens on Broadway later this month following a sold out run in Chicago.
Best known for his Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, many of Hwang’s works have an Asian-influenced theme. Chinglish depicts the comic side of a culture clash that unfolds when an American businessman tries to break into the Chinese market.
“My maternal grandmother’s English was non-existent,” Hwang explained in an interview. “I’ve got the Fujianese of a five year old, so I was constantly in situations such as I think she said she wants me to go to the market.”
Now, despite having studied Mandarin in college, he follows the advice given by the play’s main Western character – “Always take your own translator.”
David Cavanaugh, played by Obie Award-winner Gary Wilmes, is a struggling sign manufacturer from Cleveland who hopes to revive his business by securing a hefty contract in a provincial Chinese city. He wants to help local officials avoid such gaffs as a Handicapped Restroom being described as “Deformed Man’s Toilet,” a sign Hwang saw in China.
Cavanaugh soon finds out that not speaking the language is just one of the hurdles in his way. He is the only character in the play who speaks no Mandarin; luckily for the audience, everything is translated in supertitles. While Cavanaugh waits for the interpreter’s sometimes-hilarious translations – “travel home safely” becomes “leave in haste,” the audience already knows what has been said.
For Wilmes, who speaks no Chinese and has never been to China, it’s the most challenging role of his career. “I so want to turn round and read the super titles,” he said in an interview during the first week of previews. “I have to learn my cues from where I’m standing or where someone else is; we keep changing things in the show, so it’s daunting keeping track.”
On top of that, the play includes a scene where Wilmes has to portray the Westerner’s difficulty with mastering tonal Chinese – mispronouncing “I love you” in Mandarin four different ways with wildly differing meanings starting with “My fifth aunt” and culminating in much worse. “It took me four to five weeks to get that. Luckily there are lots of Chinese speakers in the cast to correct me.”