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 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.
The success of M. Butterfly prompted Hwang's interests in many other different directions, including work for opera, film, and the musical theatre. Hwang became a frequent collaborator as a librettist with the world-renowned composer Philip Glass.
One of M. Butterfly's Broadway producers, David Geffen, oversaw a film version of the play, which was directed by David Cronenberg. Hwang also wrote an original script, Golden Gate, which was produced by American Playhouse. Hwang wrote an early draft of a screenplay based upon A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel Possession, which was originally scheduled to be directed by Sydney Pollack. Years later, director/playwright Neil LaBute and Laura Jones would collaborate on the script for a 2002 film.
Throughout the 1990s, Hwang continued to write for the stage, including short plays for the famed Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and Golden Child, which received its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in 1996. Golden Child later became his second Broadway venture and won the 1997 Obie Award for its off-Broadway production and gave Hwang his second Tony nomination.
In the new millennium, Hwang had two Broadway successes back-to-back. He was asked by director Robert Falls to help co-write the book for the musical Aida (based upon the opera by Giuseppe Verdi), which, in an earlier format, had failed in regional theatre tryouts. Hwang and Falls re-wrote a significant portion of the book (by Linda Woolverton) and Aida (with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice) opened in 2000 and proved highly profitable.
His next project was a radical revision of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, II, and Joseph Fields' musical Flower Drum Song. Although successful when introduced in the 1950s and early 1960s, it had become dated after the Civil Rights Movement redefined the viability of stereotypical portrayals of Asian American communities. Though it had never been a full critical success relative to other Rodgers and Hammerstein productions such as South Pacific and The King and I, it inspired another generation of Asian Americans to re-imagine the musical. Adapted from the novel The Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee, it tells the story of a culture clash with a Chinese family living in San Francisco. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization allowed Hwang to significantly rework the plot, while retaining character names and songs. His version —both an homage to the original and a modern re-thinking— won him his third Tony nomination. Though Flower Drum Song is often called the first musical with an all-Asian cast, it was the 2002 revival of the play which was finally produced with an all-Asian cast of actor-singers. The original production had cast many non-Asians in leading roles, including Caucasians and an African-American (Juanita Hall). The revival went on to a national tour.
Hwang's 2007 play Yellow Face centers on his one failed Broadway experiment Face Value, which closed in previews on Broadway back in the early 1990s and was written in response to a controversy about the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon. Face Value, which also included music and lyrics for a musical-within-a-play by Hwang, lost millions of dollars and was a stumbling block in the careers of Hwang and producer Stuart Ostrow.
Hwang decided to turn the experience into a semi-autobiographical play which pits him as the main character in a media farce about mistaken racial identity, which was also a major premise of Face Value.
Yellow Face premiered in Los Angeles in 2007 at the Mark Taper Forum as a co-production with East West Players and then moved Off-Broadway to the Joseph Papp Public Theater, which was so important in Hwang's earlier work. There, it enjoyed an extended run, won Hwang his third Obie Award in Playwriting, and made him a third-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Hwang also wrote a new short play, The Great Helmsman for their night of plays Ten.
Hwang has continued to work steadily in the world of opera and musical theatre and has written for children's theatre as well. Hwang co-wrote the English language libretto for an operatic adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland with music (and part of the libretto) by the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, which received its world premiere at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007 and was released on DVD in 2008. Hwang wrote the libretto to Howard Shore's opera The Fly, based on David Cronenberg's 1986 film of the same name; the opera premiered on July 2, 2008 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France with Cronenberg as director and Plácido Domingo conducting. Hwang was also represented on Broadway as the librettist for Tarzan, a musical based on a film by Walt Disney Pictures.
Hwang also collaborated on the multi-media event Icarus at the Edge of Time, adapted from Brian Greene's novel. It also featured music by Philip Glass and a film by "Al and Al." The piece premiered as part of the World Science Festival.
After its major success at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Hwang's newest play, the Joseph Jefferson Award-winning Chinglish, quickly made its way to Broadway in October 2011. Chinglish was largely inspired by his frequent visits to China and his observations of interactions between Chinese and American people. However, ticket sales of Chinglish remained conservative. His most recent short play, A Very DNA Reunion was written for the evening of plays The DNA Trail, which was conceived by Jamil Khoury and premiered at the historic Chicago Temple Building.
Hwang worked on a theatrical commission for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, a musical version of Aimee Mann's album The Forgotten Arm with Mann and Paul Bryant, and screenplays for DreamWorks Animation and directors Justin Lin and Jonathan Caouette. In 2013, a production of Yellow Face premiered on YouTube. It was directed and adapted by Jeff Liu and featured Sab Shimono among others.
2014 saw the premiere of two new Hwang plays. The first, Kung Fu, about the life of Bruce Lee premiered as part of his residency at the Signature Theatre Off-Broadway. The play opened February 24, 2014 in a production directed by Leigh Silverman and featuring Cole Horibe, of So You Think You Can Dance fame. The second was Cain and Abel, which was one of many plays included in The Mysteries, a re-telling of Bible stories. The show was conceived by Ed Sylvanus and also featured the work of playwrights Craig Lucas, Dael Orlandersmith, Jose Rivera, and Jeff Whitty.
In 2014, Hwang joined the Playwriting Faculty of the Columbia University School of the Arts Theatre Program. He was appointed the director of the Playwriting Concentration and will serve as an Associate Professor of Theatre in Playwriting. Hilton Als of the New Yorker has described him as "the most successful Chinese-American playwright this country has produced."
In the fall of 2016, the San Francisco Opera will premiere "Dream of the Red Chamber," an opera by Hwang and Bright Sheng, based on the eighteenth-century novel.FOB
The Dance and the Railroad
The House of Sleeping Beauties (based on Yasunari Kawabata's novella House of the Sleeping Beauties)
The Sound of a Voice
As the Crow Flies
Trying to Find Chinatown
Peer Gynt (based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, co-written with Stephan Muller)
Merchandising (Humana Festival T[ext] Shirt play)
Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet
Tibet Through the Red Box (based on Peter Sis' book)
The Great Helmsman
A Very DNA Reunion
Cain and Abel
1000 Airplanes on the Roof (chamber opera; music by Philip Glass)
The Voyage (opera; music by Philip Glass, libretto [in English, Latin, and Spanish] based on Glass' story)
The Silver River (chamber opera; music by Bright Sheng)
Aida (musical; music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice; book co-written by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls, based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi)
Flower Drum Song (musical; music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, based upon the novel by C. Y. Lee and musical co-written by Joseph Fields)
The Sound of a Voice (opera; music by Philip Glass, based on Hwang's plays)
Ainadamar (opera; music by Osvaldo Golijov, libretto in Spanish)
Tarzan (musical; music and lyrics by Phil Collins, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Walt Disney Pictures film)
Alice in Wonderland (opera; music by Unsuk Chin, libretto co-written by Chin, based on the books by Lewis Carroll)
The Fly (opera; music by Howard Shore, based on the film by David Cronenberg)
The Dance and the Railroad (Source of Adaptation only)
Blind Alleys (with Frederic Kimball)
Forbidden City, U. S. A. (Assistant only)
Forbidden Nights (story, with Tristine Rainer, based on Judith Shapiro's article "The Rocky Course of Love in China")
M. Butterfly (based on Hwang's play)
Picture Bride (Script Advisor only)
The Monkey King (more commonly known as The Lost Empire)
Possession (with Laura Jones and Neil LaBute, based on the novel by A. S. Byatt)
Sound of a Voice (Source of Adaptation only)
White Frog (Executive Producer and Actor only)
The Affair (Consulting Producer, Writer of episode "206")
Yellow Punk Dolls (live dance; choreography by Ruby Shang, music by John Zorn)
Dances in Exile (dance film; choreography by Ruby Shang, film by Howard Silver, music by David Torn, for Alive from Off Center)
Come (song "Solo;" co-written with Prince (musician))
After Eros (live dance; choreography by Maureen Fleming, music by Philip Glass)
Icarus at the Edge of Time (multi-media presentation; music by Philip Glass, film by Al+Al, co-written with Brian Greene, based on Green's novel)
Yellow Face (YouTube video; Source of Adaptation only)
Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Stories
The Chinese Americans
Asian Pride Porn
Happy Birthday Oscar Wilde
Long Story Short
Joe Papp in Five Acts
Invitation to World Literature
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution
Asian American Drama: 9 Plays from the Multiethnic Landscape
Robot Stories and More Screenplays
The Flower Drum Song
The State of Asian America: Activisim and Resistance in the 1990s
The Monkey King (Source of Adaptation Only)
Murder in San Jose (Translation Adaptation Only)
Hwang has been awarded numerous grants, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. He has been honored with awards from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Association for Asian Pacific American Artists, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, the East West Players, the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the Center for Migration Studies, the Asian American Resource Workshop, the China Institute, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In 1998, the nation's oldest Asian American theatre company, the East West Players, christened its new mainstage The David Henry Hwang Theatre. Hwang was featured in an autobiographical series by Boise State University with a summary of his early work, as part of the Western Writers Series, written by Douglas Street. In 2011, Hwang received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a Grand Master of American Theater. In 2012, he was awarded the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre, the Asia Society Cultural Achievement Award, the China Institute Blue Cloud Award, and the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award. In 2014, he received the Doris Duke Artist Award. In 2015, he received the 2015 ISPA Distinguished Artist Award.
Mr. Hwang sits on the boards of the Dramatists Guild, Young Playwrights Inc., and the Museum Of Chinese in the Americas (MOCA). He conducts interviews on arts-related topics for the national PBS cable television show Asian America. From 1994–2001, he served by appointment of President Bill Clinton on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Hwang holds honorary degrees from Columbia College Chicago, the American Conservatory Theatre, Lehigh University, University of Southern California and State University of New York at Purchase
In 2012 Hwang was named a Fellow of United States Artists.
In 2015 Hwang was named a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow.
He lives in New York City with his wife, actress Kathryn Layng, and their children, Noah David and Eva Veanne.
In November 2015, Hwang was the victim of a stabbing near his home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The assailant stabbed Hwang in the neck, severing his vertebral artery, before running from the scene. Hwang was seriously injured and underwent surgery before being discharged from the hospital. The attack appeared to be random, as nothing was taken; the assailant was never found. Hwang wrote about the experience in the New York Times.Broken Promises, New York: Avon, 1983. (out-of-print; includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, and The House of Sleeping Beauties)
M. Butterfly, New York: Plume, 1988. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.; audio version available from L. A. Theatre Works; film version available from Warner Bros.)
1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1989. (Original Music Recording available from Virgin Records)
Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1990. (includes Hwang's As the Crow Flies and The Sound of a Voice)
FOB and Other Plays, New York: New American Library, 1990. (out-of-print; includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, The House of Sleeping Beauties, The Sound of a Voice, Rich Relations and 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof)
Golden Child, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1998. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.)
Trying to Find Chinatown: The Selected Plays, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. (includes FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, The Sound of a Voice, The House of Sleeping Beauties, Bondage, The Voyage, and Trying to Find Chinatown)
Humana Festival 1999: The Complete Plays, New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, 1999. (include Hwang's Merchandising)
Rich Relations, New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2002.
Flower Drum Song, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by David Henry Hwang; based upon the libretto by Oscar Hammerstein, II and Joseph Fields and the novel The Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee; New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. (Broadway Cast Recording available from DRG)
2004: The Best Ten-Minute Plays for Two Actors, New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, 2003. (includes Hwang's Jade Flowerpots and Bound Feet)
Peer Gynt (with Stephan Muller), based upon the play by Henrik Ibsen; New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2006.
Tibet Through the Red Box, based upon the book by Peter Sis; New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2006.
2007: The Best Ten-Minute Plays for Three or More Actors, New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, 2008. (includes Hwang's The Great Helmsman)
Yellow Face; Theatre Communications Group, 2009. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.)
Chinglish; Theatre Communications Group, 2012. (Acting edition published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.