David Henry Hwang, the American playwright of Tony-award winning play M. Butterfly and Chinglish, remains fascinated by cross-cultural identity in his writing.

When he first set out to be a playwright, Hwang says he wasn’t interested in his Chinese background. However, when he sat down to write, his subconscious brought the theme of immigration and of the immigrant experience to the fore.

He also became a prominent spokesman for Asian-American actors after a Caucasian actor was cast in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon more than 20 years ago.

"I’ve spent so much of my career with Asian actors and understanding how limited their opportunities are. And when a role comes along for an Asian and they don’t get those sorts of roles, what do they get to play? I just feel like it’s important for me to pay back," Hwang said in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

Still striving for diversity

According to Hwang, he benefited from "affirmative action" early in his career, when New York's Public Theater began looking for more diverse voices in response to protests.  

Hwang still considers lack of diversity a problem on Broadway, in part because it means that a significant potential audience is being overlooked. However, he is encouraged by the many Asian playwrights now creating work for stages in other cities. Right now, he is working on a play about the life of martial arts great Bruce Lee.

"I feel to some extent my fascination with multicultural politics has receded in recent years, but [was] superceded by international consciousness, [subjects like] the future of U.S.- China relations," he said.

In August, Hwang won the $200,000 US Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, the richest theatre prize in the U.S.

"Being a playwright is not really a way to make a living. Most of us have some sort of day job — whether it is teaching or, in my case, doing commercial work, writing movies and things. This gives me a certain amount of financial freedom to focus on my theatre work, which is a great blessing," he said.