Pvt. Danny Chen’s Tragedy Comes to the Stage

Left to right: Huang Ruo, David Henry Hwang and Rachel Cooper, Director of Cultural Programs and Performing Arts at the Asia Society (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Left to right: Huang Ruo, David Henry Hwang and Rachel Cooper, Director of Cultural Programs and Performing Arts at the Asia Society (Photo by April Xu via Sing Tao Daily)

“An American Soldier,” an opera based on the real story of Chinese-American Pvt. Danny Chen, who committed suicide after suffering from racist hazing by fellow soldiers, written by renowned playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Huang Ruo, will premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in June.

Hwang and Huang shared the thoughts behind their work in a dialogue they had at the Museum of Chinese in America. They said they hope the show can present to the audience a Danny Chen beyond the news, and help them to understand the American dream of the first- and second-generations of immigrants.

Hwang said he started to pay attention to Chen’s case in 2012. Later when he was commissioned by the Washington National Opera to write a play based on a true story of the American dream, Chen’s life and death immediately reemerged in his mind. Hwang and Huang had worked together before. Both of them agreed that Chen’s story, with its broad background and its complex and multi-layered narration, was one that can strike a chord with many people.

Danny Chen

Danny Chen

How to replicate Chen’s case in the format of opera? Hwang said most people got to know Chen through the news. But he and Huang hope they can present a “19-year-old kid in 3D” in an intriguing opera. Hwang said: “Why did Pvt. Chen choose to join the military? This was indeed related to the American dream of the first- or the second-generation of immigrants.”

Hwang noted that searching for identity is a life theme for the first- and second-generations of immigrants. Chen, as well as many other young immigrants, hoped they could be identified as American. To join the military is a way for them to prove they are willing to serve this country. Therefore, Hwang and Huang tried to interpret Chen from their unique view, discuss the challenges and transitions he had had, dig into his inner world, and to show the audience a vivid Chen.

Other than the libretto, music is also a very important part of an opera. Huang, the composer, admitted that composing this opera was very challenging work. He said the show was constructed around the scene in court. Chen’s story, including his growing up and his life as a soldier, was interwoven with the court hearings and sentencing of soldiers who were responsible for his death.

Huang said: “Because of the limited space on a stage, the music has to assume the job of marking the changes of geographic location of the scene.” For example, he matched different rhythms of the drum with different instruments to show the transition between the court and the battle zone, so that the audience would know the scene has changed.

To Hwang, the biggest challenge was to tell a real story in a fictional way. He said Chen’s case happened in real life. But in the opera, characters had to express their thoughts and emotions by singing. This clearly was different from reality. So he tried to have the audience understand the complex emotions when Chen decided to join the military and when his mother opposed the idea on the stage, hoping viewers can then accept the singing narration.

Hwang said it was also challenging to tell a complete story in an opera that only lasts for one hour. So he made Chen’s mother as well as the soldiers who were sued for hazing and the judge the main characters. He wanted to tell the story from the perspective of Chen’s mother, and touch the audience by the universal love between mother and son.

Huang said the opera has been finished and will have dress rehearsals in June. It is scheduled to premiere in the afternoons of June 13 and June 14 at the Kennedy Center. He said: “Pvt. Chen’s tragedy is not an isolated case. We hope we can bring more public the attention to war and the situation of soldiers.”

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