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Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of "Mean Streets."

This year is the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese's landmark film "Mean Streets." We pay tribute to the movie.

03:57

Other segments from the episode on March 23, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 23, 1998: Interview with Dorothy Allison; Review of Madonna's album "Ray of Light"; Interview with David Henry Hwang; Commentary on the film "Mean Streets."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Cavedweller
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Dorothy Allison's bestselling first novel, "Bastard Out of Carolina," told the story of an abused child growing up in South Carolina in the '60s. It was based on her own life story.

Now in her new book, "Cavedweller," Allison explores the aftermath of domestic abuse in a Southern family in this decade. Dorothy Allison has written explicitly about her life, her childhood abuse, and her lesbian sexuality in both her essays and poetry. She's now raising a son with her partner, Alex.

In her new novel, Cavedweller, the main character Delia (ph) is a recovering alcoholic who fled her native town of Cairo, Georgia to avoid almost certain death at the hands of her violent husband. She left behind two small daughters.

After a marriage and a career as a singer for a rock band in L.A., Delia returns to Cairo a decade later to recover her lost children and redeem her past. She brings with her her daughter Cissy (ph) from her second marriage.

Here's Dorothy Allison reading from the beginning of her new novel Cavedweller.

DOROTHY ALLISON, AUTHOR, "BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA," "CAVEDWELLER," AND "TRASH": "Emptying the closets of the little cottage, Delia picked at the raw sore of her conscience. It had been 10 years. Her girls DeDe (ph) and Amanda, they were not babies. They were 11, 13 -- nearly grown. What if they didn't hate her?

What if her girls hoped for her as much as she hoped for them? From "what if," she fell to "maybe," then to "might be," "could be," "oh, God, surely so." It was the way she thought when she was drinking, as detached from the real as anything could be.

It was the voice in the back-brain -- the voice that swore: one drink wouldn't kill her and another was all right, too. The devil or desperation -- that voice -- whispered steadily, drew her on. Delia swore she would never drink again, but her girls were not liquor. Her girls were real. Cairo was real. Cairo was home. Maybe no one could earn forgiveness, but listening to that whisper, Delia-bird packed everything she owned and decided to try."

BOGAEV: Dorothy Allison, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ALLISON: Well, thank you.

BOGAEV: I find it interesting that right in the beginning of your book, you set up this situation for Delia that when you've fallen so low or so far in your life, there's almost no way to distinguish hope from self-delusion. Is that how you saw the book beginning?

ALLISON: That's not only how I saw the book, it's how I see my life.

LAUGHTER

Yes.

BOGAEV: Why...

ALLISON: I wanted her at rock bottom, for -- up against the wall, had to decide to change her life. And I think that that opening just pushes her over; triggers everything that follows.

BOGAEV: Now eventually, this whole -- this whole family ends up living together -- Delia, her daughter Cissy from her second marriage, and her two daughters from her first marriage. And they live with her first husband, who is dying of cancer and who has made a pact to help Delia get her daughters back if Delia helps him die.

This is all really enormously complicated. What interested you about bringing these women together under these fractured circumstances?

ALLISON: Well, what I wanted to write was a novel about forgiveness; a novel about repentance and how do you -- how do you make amends, which is very -- I know lots of people do that. But I have seen people forgive each other. I wasn't sure that I believed it ever really happens. I wasn't sure I believed in forgiveness.

So I had to -- in order to figure it out -- I had to write it out. And I wanted it to see if Delia would be forgiven, because I think she has committed an unforgivable sin in abandoning her daughters. And I wanted to see if her husband Clint can be forgiven, 'cause I think his sin is unforgivable as well.

I don't think they forgive each other. But I think that in the course of trying to work through this, they earn a kind of redemption for the children and for themselves.

BOGAEV: I really like, in the beginning of the book, when Delia takes off for her home town of Cairo, Georgia with her daughter, to recover her two daughters from her first marriage. She ends up in a diner right inside Cairo, and a waitress is waiting on them. The waitress is real sweet. There's a real Southern hospitality-thing going on.

But then, the cook leans out of the kitchen and says she recognizes Delia. She says "I know you." You should do it. You -- you have the accent down. What does she say?

ALLISON: Well, Delia of course immediately assumes that she recognizes her from "Mud Dog," which is how she became famous, as this kind of second-rank blues and rock and roll singer. But the cook recognizes her as that woman that ran off and left her babies. And you know, calls her name in the middle of the diner -- everybody looks up. It's that kind of public crucifixion that we all hope we never have to endure. And she does it in front of the youngest child, Cissy.

BOGAEV: The cook says: "you're the one who ran off with that rock band, and don't think we don't remember. You're the kind..."

ALLISON: "Yeah, we remember you -- you're the kind we remember."

BOGAEV: So cold. Now, have you seen this happen -- a fallen woman return home?

ALLISON: I've seen fallen women not only return home. I've seen them triumph. My mother -- my mother gave birth to an illegitimate child at the age of 15, and simply had to walk through Greenville County for the rest of her life with everyone knowing what she had done, and stand up under it, at a time when that was a large weight to carry. That was the unforgivable sin, was to have a child out of wedlock; late '40s, early '50s -- impossible.

And she did it. She did it with a great deal of grace, but with enormous damage; the kind of muscle that it takes to be despised and not despise yourself. That's what I was looking for in the women in Cairo.

BOGAEV: And you were the daughter who -- who heard the whispers following your mother?

ALLISON: Oh, yes; oh, yes.

BOGAEV: Like -- like what?

ALLISON: I remember being seven, eight years old and putting up a lemonade stand, and having the little girl next door come tell me: "nobody's gonna buy your lemonade 'cause you're a bastard."

LAUGHTER

Going into tell my mother that, and watching her face, 'cause there was nothing she could do.

BOGAEV: What did she tell you to say or do or think?

ALLISON: She said: "I'll buy your lemonade."

LAUGHTER

Bought the whole jar and brought me in. She told me never to be ashamed of myself. She told me that people will have all kinds of opinions about who you are and what you do. She said you just stand up. Don't let them back you down.

And that's pretty much what I watched her do.

BOGAEV: Now how did you understand -- or how do you understand now people like the cook who don't, I suppose, reconcile these contradictions? This person was hating Delia for leaving a man who was basically about to kill her, and leaving her children; despising a woman for saving herself, but they also hate the men, who are violent to the women. I mean, there's -- it's such a contradiction, but those two things exist at the same time in people who condemn women like that.

ALLISON: It's kind of interesting that we can forgive men. We find it really difficult to forgive women in that situation -- the woman who runs, especially a woman who runs and leaves her children behind -- is just -- that's unforgivable. And I think that's the trick of it. None of us ever really believes it was as bad as Delia knows it was.

If you were living in Delia's head, you would understand why she ran, but everybody else, looking at it from the outside, thinks she should have thought. She should have made a plan. She should have been more rational -- or she shouldn't have married him in the first place.

I don't think we really understand violent relationships in any complex way. And we hold the women responsible, even though at this point in time, we have so much more information. You're still a mother -- that kind of -- supposed to be the paragon of virtue; supposed to hang in there. And the one who runs, nah, we don't really understand.

BOGAEV: When Delia goes home, she repents. She has this what you call "season of repentance." And there's a very touching moment when she comes home; she's been attending a Baptist Church for a while. She's completely destroyed. But at one of these services, an old lady touches her. She uses Delia's shoulder to push up out of the pew. And this is taken by everyone as a sign of -- or a promise of forgiveness.

Is that something that would have been noticed by everyone in a church in a small town like Cairo? That one of their own had touched a sinner?

ALLISON: Oh, yes, oh yes. They're watching them all -- that -- you can't imagine what it's like to be the sinner in a small town; to wear that public cloak. They watch you every minute, every minute. And the woman who touches her is a woman of virtue -- one of the older women in the church.

And she touches her purely because it is so evident that Delia has suffered so completely. They never forgive her when she runs off and she's with the rock band and she's living the good life. But the woman who has come home and is destroyed and is publicly suffering -- that woman they can imagine taking back in, partly because she makes such a great parable.

They can show her to their daughters and say "look, look -- that one -- she was doing good, but look how God has brought her down." They love her.

BOGAEV: It's a walking Bible story.

ALLISON: Yes. The trick, of course, is that Delia is a strong-willed woman. She would never have asked for their forgiveness. She couldn't make herself do it. All she really does is fall completely apart. And the women friends in her life take care of her, and they drag her to church every Sunday; show her suffering, 'cause they know that's the only way for her to win a place back in that town.

Delia herself, if she was herself, wouldn't be able to stand it.

BOGAEV: My guest is novelist and poet Dorothy Allison. Her novel Bastard out of Carolina was a bestseller. It was also nominated for the National Book Award. Her other books include "Trash," a collection of stories, and a book of poems called "The Women Who Hate Me." Her new novel is Cavedweller.

We're going to talk more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Dorothy Allison. Her new novel is Cavedweller.

A beauty salon figures pretty prominently in this book Cavedweller. Delia takes over the lease on the beauty shop. I really like how you write about the shop -- how hair salons in these small towns, probably really anywhere, are as you put it "all about dreams and lust and the approximation of a fantasy" -- that, you know, doing up your hair like a movie star for the prom or Saturday night is a really big deal, and probably the only time that women feel safe in these towns being sexual -- talking about sex.

ALLISON: Oh, true. It's safe country. Well, you're there to be reconstructed. You're there to be put in the hands of other women who are going to make you the best you can be and send you out into the world with all that hope. It is a dream. It is a fantasy.

BOGAEV: You know this beauty shop scene first-hand?

ALLISON: Oh Lord, yes. Oh Lord, yes. Well my mother -- when I was a girl, my mother earned money by doing women's hair in her home. She wasn't a beautician. She was a waitress, but she was really good at it. So, women could come to her to have their hair done. And my sisters inherited her talent. One of my sisters worked for a long time as a beautician, and I would go to watch her.

BOGAEV: Now, did women really talk about sex when they were getting their hair done?

ALLISON: Oh, of course.

BOGAEV: Mm-hmm.

ALLISON: It was women's country. It's like men had clubs; women had beauty parlors.

BOGAEV: Mm-hmm.

ALLISON: And think about it -- you're laying back; your head's all greasy and warm; somebody's had her hands on your face; you're like laying in your mama's arms. You talk about anything. And any women past adolescence is going to discuss that subject they're not allowed to discuss on the street.

BOGAEV: Now, what were you taught about sex growing up?

ALLISON: That it was dangerous; that it was woman's responsibility; that you could never trust any man anyway, but nevermind.

LAUGHTER

BOGAEV: Now, you've written, of course, a lot about your family in your books; your stepfather physically and sexually abused you. Did you have a religious rationale as a child for the abuse, given the contradictions of what people did and didn't say about sex?

ALLISON: No, I didn't. I used to think God wasn't looking. That's the only way it could possibly work. God wasn't paying attention to us. And I got fairly angry about it -- used to try to imagine what it would take to get God to look at us; give justice to us.

BOGAEV: Did that mean in your mind that you weren't worth it to God, to look at you?

ALLISON: Exactly, exactly. And I don't -- I don't know any answer. I'm sure that no one intends that whole sections of the population, especially young girls, believe themselves beneath the glance of God, but that's exactly what it feels like; feels like there is sanity, there is law, there is justice -- but it's for other people.

BOGAEV: Now, if you didn't have a religious rationale for it, what rationale did you have in your head?

ALLISON: Oh, men.

LAUGHTER

It's unfortunate that one of the given myths of the working class is that men can't help themselves. Men are dogs. Women are responsible. And it's the same ethic that makes it impossible for women to really have full use of their own lives, because the whole job of a woman is to somehow contain, corral, and mystique a man into being better than he intends.

I don't believe it now, but it is pretty much what I was told as a girl. I think a lot of girls were told it in the '50s, '60s, early '70s. I think it's one of the things the women's movement changed, which was simply a demand that men take responsibility for their full lives, not leave it in the hands of the woman who's going to have to fight him off.

BOGAEV: Now your mother wasn't able to protect you in this situation. Maybe you settled this in your heart -- why she did what she did -- long ago, but in writing this book about a battered woman trying to redeem her past and her relationship with her children, were you putting yourself back in your mother's place again? Did you come to a different understanding of what she did and who she was?

ALLISON: I think just because of the changes in my life, I had come to a different understanding. There's no answer to the tragedy of my mother's life. My mother spent her entire life trying to be a good Baptist woman; to save her husband; to redeem him; and believing that that was her job; her lot in life. She did everything she could to protect and care for her girls. And she believed herself to have failed, and in many ways she did.

In other ways more basic than I can ever explain, she didn't. She literally saved our lives over and over again. There's no justice in what was demanded of her. I don't know anyone who could have lived that contradiction and answered it. If you're not given the option of leaving, which she didn't have. She couldn't. She was a good Baptist woman. She couldn't leave him. Then you compromise every day of your life, and eventually you destroy yourself.

I wanted to write a book about a woman who leaves -- who leaves badly; who leaves broken; who fails. And then through sheer stubborn will and with the invaluable support of the other women in her life -- her women friends -- goes back, saves her children, retakes her own life. She does it at enormous cost, but I know women do it.

BOGAEV: Have you forgiven, in any sense, your stepfather?

ALLISON: Forgiveness is a large concept. I have tried to understand. And I'll tell you the truth, I think I have failed. I think some of the reason I have created the men characters that I have written is an attempt to understand. But I don't -- I genuinely don't understand a man who is violent with children; a man who would break the heart and soul of the woman he loves. I've never quite gotten to that place of understanding.

I have tried not to do myself any damage, and I decided a long time ago that thinking too much, pushing too much at this knot does me a damage. So I don't hold -- I don't keep him in my mind. I don't wish evil on him. I've put him in another place. That's as close to forgiveness as I can get.

I think sometimes we talk a little bit too easily about forgiveness. I'll tell you the truth: one of the reasons I wrote the book I have written is to show how long and complicated it is to forgive someone; how much work it takes, both to forgive and to earn forgiveness.

BOGAEV: Is it something you see yourself still working on in regards to him?

ALLISON: Oh, I've got -- I try not to think too much about my stepfather. There are dark nights when I do, and like I said I don't understand him. I have no -- I have no way to touch his heart and I'll tell you the truth: I don't want him to touch mine. There's too much pain there. No, I've made myself a place of safety. It's a lot easier to write fiction than it is to change your own life.

BOGAEV: Now, you've said that this book Cavedweller was a way of proving or working out for yourself whether forgiveness can actually happen.

ALLISON: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Where do you get to at the end -- where did you get to at the end of writing it?

ALLISON: I got to where I began to believe that no only could forgiveness actually happen, but that you could learn to trust love. One of the things that is common to all of Delia's girls is that none of them trusts anybody. They don't trust themselves and they do not trust love itself. And a lot of it is because they watched their mother with Clint, and they saw the damage that was done there.

This happens a whole lot more than we talk about -- that young girls grow up believing that there's this myth of love, but there is no reality, and that you have to go armored into the world. I began to believe after I worked my girls up, you could love; that there could genuinely be people you can trust with your heart.

BOGAEV: Now in all of your writing -- your public persona and your private life have merged so often. It's interesting to me how you would decide what to keep for yourself.

ALLISON: Hmm. You know, I've never thought of having a public persona. I don't separate off that way. I'm a child of the '60s and early '70s, and we were all trying to live our one life and not be different at home or in the world; didn't want to have that mind/body split; separate up.

So, I've never thought that there was anything in my life I could wall off. And actually, I learned very early on that because of a lot of the circumstances that I've grown up in, I couldn't afford to be ashamed. I couldn't afford to start hiding things about myself. So I've had to be very matter-of-fact and blunt about subjects that lots of people don't even want to hear about. And sometimes I don't want to talk about -- but I don't dare start playing into that place where fear lives. I don't start hiding.

But I know that, particularly the last few years, I've made a pact with my sisters not to talk about their children. I try not to talk too much about my son. It's going to be hard enough for him in the world. I'm trying to imagine that there are places where I don't need to drag everybody. It gets a little complicated.

BOGAEV: Dorothy Allison, I want to thank you so much for talking today.

ALLISON: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Dorothy Allison's new novel is Cavedweller.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Dorothy Allison
High: Writer Dorothy Allison. Her bestselling novel "Bastard Out of Carolina," was about a poor South Carolina family's violence and incest, and was largely autobiographical. She says that she doesn't like most abuse literature because it tends to eroticize abuse. Allison has also written a book of short stories called "Trash" and a book of poems called "The Women Who Hate Me." Allison's new novel is "Cavedweller."
Spec: Books; Author; Dorothy Allison; Cavedweller
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Cavedweller
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Ray of Light
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev sitting in for Terry Gross.

Having played Evita Peron in the movies and given birth to a daughter in real life, Madonna is back with a new pop album called "Ray of Light." Much of the CD incorporates elements of a currently-fashionable style "electronica" modified to fit Madonna's voice and ideas.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review. This is the title track.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, PERFORMING "RAY OF LIGHT")

MADONNA, SINGER AND ACTRESS, SINGING: (Unintelligible)
I wonder
Do my tears of mourning
Sink beneath the sun?
(Unintelligible) A simple universe gone quickly
Before the call of thunder
Threatens everyone
And I feel
Like I just got born
And I feel
And I feel
Like I just born
And I feel

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Recent interviews with Madonna never fail to mention two things: her daughter Lourdes, now two years old, and Madonna's current infatuation with Yoga. Childbirth and a new regime of meditation and exercise have resulted on this CD in the musical version of a radian glow. There's a luminosity to some of the songs on Ray of Light that's never been present in her work before.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "RAY OF LIGHT")

MADONNA, SINGING: You only see what your eyes want to see
How can life can be what you want it to be
You're frozen when your heart's not open

You're so consumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret
You're broken when you heart's not open

TUCKER: Throughout Ray of Light, Madonna is collaborating with the producer William Orbit (ph), well-known in the dance music world for his eerie, intense remixes of songs by rock acts ranging from Prince to The Cure. Over the past year, major pop figures like David Bowie and U2 have had a crack at electronica, but the results sounded stilted and forced.

The icy fluid textures of this genre are much more natural surrounding Madonna's voice, though. She's always been a dance music devotee, and she slips into the rhythm of this sort of music. She's at ease, playful on a sexy song like "Candy Perfume Girl."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "CANDY PERFUME GIRL")

MADONNA, SINGING: Young velvet porcelain boy
Devour me when you're with me
Blue-ish window seats
Speak delicious fires
I'm your candy perfume girl
Your candy perfume girl

TUCKER: If there's any one song that sums up what Madonna is trying to get across to us at this point in her career, it's the one called "Nothing Really Matters" in which she wants to suggest that she's become the opposite of her old "material girl" image.

The song is clearly addressed to her daughter, and its sentiments are the kind of things you hear from so many first-time parents -- that sudden realization that you've been selfish or at least self-centered; that a baby forces you outside of yourself.

The ideas may be commonplace, but they're no less true in a good song like this.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "NOTHING REALLY MATTERS")

MADONNA, SINGING: When I was very young
Nothing really mattered to me
But making myself happy

I was the only one
Now that I am grown
Everything's changed
I'll never be the same
Because of you

Nothing really matters
Love is all we need
Everything I give you
All comes back to me

TUCKER: It would be silly to take the lyrics of that song at face value. Uh, somehow I don't think that Madonna is spending her days changing diapers and denying herself pop-star pleasures because nothing really matters except love and happiness.

You notice that when she says what she really likes about having a baby is that when you give it love, it "comes back to you." With Madonna, everything comes back to Madonna. But frankly, that's one reason I like her and enjoy her work. For someone so wrapped up in the reality and myth of the life she's created, she also knows how to give other people a lot of pleasure.

BOGAEV: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Madonna's new CD "Ray of Light."
Spec: Music Industry; Ray of Light
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ray of Light
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032301np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Golden Child
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:35

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: David Henry Hwang's new play "Golden Child" is based on stories his grandmother told him about her childhood in China, growing up in the 1920s. Hwang made tape recordings of his grandmother when he was just 10 years old. Her father, a wealthy merchant with three contentious wives, was the first in Hwang's family to convert to Christianity.

David Henry Hwang has written a number of plays, screenplays, and libretti (ph), including the Broadway hit "M. Butterfly," which won a Tony Award in 1988. Golden Child is slated to open on Broadway on April 2.

Hwang says he realized in researching this play that his great-grandfather's conversion to Christianity was part of a larger social movement in China at the beginning of the century.

DAVID HENRY HWANG, PLAYWRIGHT, "GOLDEN CHILD": You know, in China, in that period right after the Manchu Dynasty fell and the republic was set up, I think a lot of forward-thinking Chinese were grappling with the question: well, what is a model for the new China? And in trying to find ways by which the society can move ahead, people tended to gravitate towards Western models.

Some people gravitated towards Marxism. Some people gravitated toward Christianity; and some people a combination of both. So that Christianity at that point was actually as much a means to move ahead in social progress in the minds of some Chinese as it was a religion.

And I think that the play attempts to make the distinction between Ting Bin (ph), the father -- the patriarch figure -- who goes into Christianity for reasons which perhaps are more social and practical and political; and then the impact that it has on his daughter, the character that my -- that would be my grandmother as a young girl. And that same ideology -- the way that it impacts on a young child's mind to make it a more sort of fundamentalist, more extreme kind of version of the religion.

BOGAEV: Your father converted to Protestantism before your parents married.

HWANG: Right.

BOGAEV: Did that resonate in any way in your family also? Was there any conflict in their marriage or in your family over religion?

HWANG: No, because my father sort of just said it was OK. I mean, there wasn't -- he didn't -- he didn't really put up that much of a fuss. My father was, you know, came to the States. I mean, both my parents are immigrants. My father came to the States and he was interested in becoming Western. He was sort in love with America. He wanted to be an American. So, the idea of becoming a Christian didn't seem to be that difficult for him.

I have to say that subsequently -- I mean, at the time that I stopped becoming a Christian -- or, you know, became dead again as it were -- in college, I -- you know, I thought well this is such a radical move and it's -- you know, it's really horrible because I'm the oldest in my generation. Nobody had ever done this thing before. But since that time, various other of my family members, including my father, have sort of slacked off.

So I don't know, you know, I guess it might have been more important to my father at one point in his life than it is now.

BOGAEV: What did it mean to your father to "be an American?"

HWANG: I think that he saw it as a way of be -- I think he equated success probably with being an American; that is, he was a second son of his father, and therefore wouldn't have gotten as much as his older brother. And so, he saw America as a place to go to -- to get his, as it were. And that perhaps he always felt that he was falling short of the mark of what it means to be an American, until he actually did achieve some success in his business.

And then ironically enough, I think now that he's achieved some success, he's maybe less interested in what it means to be an American.

BOGAEV: Growing up, did you really want to just be American -- not a Chinese-American?

HWANG: Yeah, I mean I think that -- I mean I would actually say that I wasn't even that aware of being Asian when I was growing up. On the other hand, it always strikes me as interesting, you know, that one of the things -- if I would see an Asian character on television or something, I would always immediately change the channel. Or, if I knew that there was -- you know, that there was going to be a movie with an Asian theme, I wouldn't go see that movie.

And I think even then, I was feeling the kind of disjunction between these images, which would be associated with me because I knew they looked like me, and yet did not seem to be me. And that therefore the conflict between one's outer-self and one's inner-self -- and I think it's natural that as a kid, you know, you sort of want to be like everybody else.

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is playwright David Henry Hwang. He won a Tony Award for M. Butterfly. His new work Golden Child is slated to open on Broadway on April 2.

You're perhaps best-known for writing M. Butterfly. It's based on the story, for those of you who don't remember, of a French diplomat who carried on an affair for nearly 20 years with a male Chinese spy, who the diplomat believed or claims he believed to be a woman.

What first drew you, David, to the story? Was it the political and the cultural elements? Or, the sexual issues?

HWANG: Well I think when you hear a story like that, which I did at a cocktail party. It was actually the sort of story one would hear at a cocktail party. It's -- you know, it just -- it's so intriguing. I don't know if it was the political issues or the sexual issues initially. It's just as a story, it makes you go, well, you know, the diplomat claims he didn't know his lover was actually a man. Well, how could he not know?

As I started to get into it, I didn't actually research it very much. First of all, there wasn't that much to be known. I mean, there had been a sort of a press release that had been published through -- in the New York Times which then had gotten picked up, I think, by other wire services. So any place you looked, I just found the same information that was in the New York Times article.

But I -- you know I thought about the question a lot, and it just seemed -- one of the things that struck me initially was that the story seemed oddly credible. And the -- although one's initial reaction is: well this is an impossible story, there was another part of me that felt that this made sense.

BOGAEV: When you say the more you thought about it, the more credible it seemed to you, what -- what made it credible?

HWANG: I guess it's that I feel like there's so much -- you know, there's so much misunderstanding between East and West, and so much kind of sexual stereotyping that goes on, as well as other sorts of stereotyping, that in some way it seemed to me that a mistake of this magnitude was almost inevitable; that you know, I think we'd -- as Asians, we're aware of that there is, you know, what are called guys with "yellow fever," which is, you know, white guys who are like really interested in Asian women. And in the gay community, there's -- I think -- gay men who are really interested in gay Asian men. At least at the time, there was a slang term for them called "rice queens."

So there's always been this sort of sexual fascination on the part of the West for the East, and a sort of feminization of the East which is part of the whole allure. And so -- which is typified by Madame Butterfly. I mean, Madame Butterfly's sort of the template for the whole idea of this submissive Asian woman who's self-sacrificing and who wants to be abused on some level, and the appeal that has for men and for the West.

BOGAEV: Because the stereotype is so compelling?

HWANG: Yeah, because the stereotype blinds you to seeing the actual person. It's -- one carries on an affair with the stereotype, rather than carrying on an affair with a human being.

BOGAEV: Have you in your life found yourself fighting against the expectations of what Asians are supposed to be? -- for instance, good at math or science or music?

HWANG: Yeah, I actually was a violinist, so I sort of fell into that category. But the -- I think -- sometimes I wonder if some of the decisions that I've made in life are not simply reactive. I mean, there's -- you know, I've made the decision to be a writer, for instance, partially because it was such a -- it was something that would go against the expectations; go against the stereotype of what people might expect of me.

I mean, I don't know how much truth there is to that, but in general, yeah, I mean I find it kind of interesting if I'd, I don't know, drive onto the Paramount lot or something and somebody assumes that I'm there to fix the computer. So the -- there is -- yeah, there are things that we carry with us and people make these assumptions. And I think I fight them the same way that all sorts of people fight different assumptions that are made about them.

BOGAEV: You wrote a farce a few years ago called "Face Value."

HWANG: Right.

BOGAEV: And it was inspired by the controversy over the Broadway musical "Miss Saigon" and the casting of a white actor in the role of a Eurasian.

HWANG: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: I'm curious whether for you in your plays it was always a policy to cast a Chinese-American actor to play the role of a Chinese character.

BOGAEV: It's -- I've -- I have always had a policy, but that's not actually exactly the policy. The policy for me is to cast Asians as Asians. In other words, if I have a Chinese-American character, it doesn't matter to me if the actor is, you know, of Korean descent or of Japanese descent or whatever.

And I sort of make the analogy between white actors. That is, if you're casting -- if you're doing "Sophie's Choice," you can cast Meryl Streep in that role and she doesn't have to Eastern European. And similarly, I feel that that situation should apply to Asian actors as well.

Now I mean ideally, it seems to me that anybody should be able to play anything. And -- but it -- this feels -- this has always felt to me like -- sort of like the question of affirmative action, which is that, you know, ideally one -- there shouldn't be any laws that have to do with race and we should be able to live in a completely color blind society. But I don't think we're there yet in the case of affirmative action or in the case of this -- of casting.

BOGAEV: Now, writing about non-Asian topics for the theater, do you feel that you're taking a risk? Or that your critics look at it in terms of: "here is our self-appointed Asian-American theater authority tackling a non-Asian topic."

HWANG: Well, you know at this point in my life I'm just so grateful to have an idea for a play. I can't really censor myself and say, well, this is an Asian one or this is a non-Asian one. I've just got to go write it.

And yeah, I mean, there are -- perhaps there are critics in certain circumstances that might say well this -- you know, David Hwang is the official Asian-American playwright, and therefore he should only do this Asian-American stuff.

But frankly, I have not found that to be the case. I mean, certainly most of the plays that I've done have had some sort of Asian content to them. On the occasions when I haven't -- the pieces I've done with Philip Glass (ph) for instance -- you know, if critics have had problems with the work one way or another, I don't think anyone has mentioned that it's because I was kind of ethnically incorrect for the job.

And there's an interesting I think that is happening in terms of Asian artists, writers, directors, producers -- people behind the camera or behind the scenes, which is that, I mean if you look at the film industry for instance, a lot of Asian directors now are not being considered so much in terms of their ethnicity. They're almost being treated the way that European directors were treated a generation ago.

If you -- for instance, the idea of Ang Lee (ph) doing "Sense and Sensibility" or Wayne Lang (ph) doing "Smoke" or John Woo doing "Face-Off" -- these actors -- or these directors are not typecast in terms of their ethnicity.

And I find it -- I think that's a good thing and I mean I certainly make most of my living as a screenwriter and I find I'm able to get jobs, as it were, which do not have anything to do with my ethnicity. So -- so that's good in a sense.

But I also contrast that with the way that many African-American directors still tend to get slotted into black projects. And I think the disparity is kind of interesting, and it makes me sort of wonder why. And the only thing that I've sort of been able to come up with is that Asians -- that part of our stereotype -- of the baggage of stereotypes that we carry is this notion of kind of being very artistic and being very, you know, aesthetic.

And therefore, perhaps under that mindset, Asians have been given more liberty to be kind of honorary whites in that situation than as many African-American directors have.

BOGAEV: I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. It was a pleasure.

HWANG: Thank you.

BOGAEV: David Henry Hwang's new play Golden Child opens on Broadway next month.

Coming up, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of an acclaimed film.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: David Henry Hwang
High: Playwright David Henry Hwang. He received numerous awards for his Broadway debut "M. Butterfly." His newest production "Golden Child" about the struggle between tradition and change in a family in 1918 China, opens on Broadway in April. It received a 1997 Obie Award.
Spec: Theater; Asia; China; M. Butterfly; Golden Child
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Golden Child
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 23, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032304NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Mean Streets Anniversary
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Tonight is of course the night we see how many Academy Awards "Titanic" sails away with. But there's another movie event we'd like to note. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" -- the 1973 film set in New York's Little Italy about a bunch of neighborhood hustlers, loan sharks, and low-level mafiosi.

Pauline Kael called Mean Streets a true original of our period -- a triumph of personal filmmaking. And for many movie fans, it was the first time they took notice of two young actors -- Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "MEAN STREETS")

ROBERT DENIRO, ACTOR: Hey.

HARVEY KEITEL, ACTOR: Ha ha -- Joe Velino (ph).

DENIRO: Charlie, how are you?

KEITEL: All right. How are you?

DENIRO: I want you to meet two beautiful young ladies here. This is my good friend Charlie. This is my good friend Tony -- always the jerk. This is -- what's you name again, darlin?

ACTRESS: Sarah.

KEITEL: Sarah -- Sarah Klein, right? Sarah Klein, this is Tony and this is -- what's your name?

ACTRESS: Heather.

KEITEL: Heather -- Heather Weintraub, right?

LAUGHTER

I met them in the Village.

DENIRO: Bohemians.

KEITEL: Yeah, (Unintelligible).

BOGAEV: DeNiro plays Johnny-boy, a pathologically irresponsible gambler who's dangerously ignoring a mounting debt. Keitel is Charlie, a junior-level Mafia thug who's trying to keep his cousin Johnny out of trouble before his problems with the loan shark get out of hand.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "MEAN STREETS")

KEITEL: Why didn't you make a payment last Tuesday?

DENIRO: What do you mean? I made my payment last Tuesday, what are you talking about?

KEITEL: You paid him last week?

DENIRO: Yeah, I paid him last week. Now what did he say? He say I didn't pay him? He's a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) liar. Well is he?

KEITEL: You paid him.

DENIRO: Yeah, I paid him. Last week. Yeah.

KEITEL: Last Tuesday.

DENIRO: Yeah. Charlie, you don't know...

KEITEL: He's here.

DENIRO: Where?

KEITEL: Out front.

DENIRO: He's here?

KEITEL: Yeah.

DENIRO: So what do I care?

KEITEL: I'm gonna go get him we'll straighten this thing out. All right?

DENIRO: Hey wait a minute -- wait a minute, Charlie.

KEITEL: What?

DENIRO: Well, you're right.

KEITEL: I'm right?

DENIRO: Yeah, was it -- what? -- last Tuesday?

KEITEL: Yeah, that's the Tuesday that was last week that's before the one that's about to come up.

DENIRO: My mistake. I'm sorry. Forgive me. It was last week -- the week before that I was thinking of. Yeah.

KEITEL: Oh yeah, it was, eh?

DENIRO: That's right.

KEITEL: What's the matter with you Johnnie? You can't go around (EXPLETIVE DELETED) people that way. If you're worried about something, you gotta keep it.

DENIRO: You don't know what happened to me. I'm so depressed about other things I can't worry about payments, you know what I mean? I come home last Tuesday, I have my money -- catch, you know -- blah -- bah -- bing -- bing -- I'm -- coming home, I ran into Jimmy Sparks. I owe Jimmy Sparks $700 like for four months. I gotta pay the guy -- lives in my building, hangs out across the street. I gotta pay the guy, right?

KEITEL: Yeah.

DENIRO: So what happened? I had to give some to my mother. Then I would have wound up with $25 the end of the week. And then what happened today you ain't gonna believe 'cause it's just incredible, and I can't believe it myself.

KEITEL: What?

DENIRO: I was in a game. I was ahead like six, seven hundred dollars, right?

KEITEL: You gotta be kidding?

DENIRO: Yeah, that's the streak. You know Joey Clams (ph)?

KEITEL: Yeah.

DENIRO: Joey Scowl, yeah.

KEITEL: I know him too, yeah.

DENIRO: Yeah -- yo, no, Joey Scowl is Joe Clams ...

KEITEL: Right, right. They're the same person.

DENIRO: Yeah.

KEITEL: Hey.

DENIRO: Hey. So I was in their playing bankers and brokers, all of a sudden, I'm ahead like six, seven hundred dollars. I'm really winning. All of a sudden, some kid walks in and the kid yells that the bulls are coming, right?

Now, the cops are coming, everybody runs away, I grab all the money, I go in -- it's an excuse like to get away, right? You know, and I'd give everybody the money back, later, and that way I'd get out onto -- get into the game and get a loser's streak and all that.

What happens? I come out in the yard -- I don't know this building. I mean, I don't know nothing; couldn't get out. It was like a box -- big like this. So I gotta go back in. Not only do I go back in, but this kid says it's a false alarm. Imagine that. I wanted to kill this (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

I mean, I want to -- I was so crazy. I want to kill this kid, meanwhile I gotta get back in the game -- bing, bing, bing -- I lose $400. Meanwhile, Frankie Bones (ph) is over there -- Frankie Bones -- I owe him $1,300 like seven, eights months already. He's after me. I can't even walk on Hester Street without ducking that guy. He's...

BOGAEV: Mean Streets runs through this Thursday at the Film Forum theater in New York. It will open in other cities around the country in the coming weeks.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: We honor the 25th anniversary of Scorsese's "Mean Streets" with a brief clip.
Spec: Movie Industry; Mean Streets

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Mean Streets Anniversary
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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