Stereotypes of race and gender laid bare in David Henry Hwang’s M. BUTTERFLY

October 10, 2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind – IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance presents David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. The play explores the complicated relationship between Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a Peking Opera star during China’s Cultural Revolution. A seminal work of American theatre, the play won 3 Tony awards in 1988, including Best Play and Best Featured Actor.

The audience first encounters the character Song Liling singing the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly in Italian, enchanting Gallimard. Though both Western and Chinese forms are referred to as “opera” in English, Peking Opera, now known as Beijing Opera, performance combines song, speech, and dance, as well as intricate acrobatics and martial arts. While there are similarities between Western and Eastern opera forms, they are seen as completely separate in the eyes of the world. Playwright David Henry Hwang employs opera as a lens to reveal mutual perceptions, or misperceptions, between East and West.

Brennan Murphy, the Dramaturg for the show, explains, “The interactions between the East and West in M. Butterfly show racial stereotypes… Gallimard wants Song to conform to a delicate and submissive Asian fantasy, so that he in turn can play at being a macho and powerful Westerner.” Gender and racial issues blend with national perceptions of identity.

Katie Horwitz is Assistant Directing the show, “It’s interesting to look at gender in M. Butterfly. (Gallimard’s wife) Helga is the quintessential ‘wife,’ only being concerned with ‘minor’ or domestic issues; while Gallimard’s friend Marc is a ruthless playboy who only objectifies women. It’s quite a clear contrast.”

The politics of nationality and loyalty also play a huge role in the show. “Many people don’t realize that racism and stereotypes don’t extend just to “other” groups; one of Gallimard’s flaws is expecting Western men to act in a certain way, ultimately harming himself,” Murphy says. “As well as [showing] the incredibly complex politics behind China’s Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War, M. Butterfly serves as a cautionary tale for anyone wishing to bridge the gap between cultures; telling them not to oversimplify the views you hold of the foreign people with whom you’ll interact, and not to oversimplify yourself.”

According to Director Murray McGibbon, the essence of the play is “A desperately sad love story. Two people are in love with the idea of love; living a fantasy life, not being in touch with reality. And there is a danger there.” A plot based on romance seems simple enough, but according to McGibbon, “In some ways this play is easier to read than to stage.”

How do you present a play which has over 28 locations and spans 50 years? “Use overt theatricality successfully in the space,” McGibbon says. That means employing lighting and projections to define specific areas; a jail cell can become an apartment or a rice field. New Associate Professor Allen Hahn designed the lighting for this show. “In a play like this which doesn’t mandate strict adherence to representation of reality, I am much more free to define spaces within the larger performance space by lighting one portion of the stage more boldly while letting the rest of the space fall into shadow, soft focus, or a strong color field.” Hahn has previously designed for opera, theatre, and art installations and is excited about exploring innovative lighting practices. “I’m always thrilled when a play like this comes my way.”

Don’t be intimidated by the scope of the work though. “The audience will get it easily if they are active participants,” explains McGibbon, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. We look forward to a stimulating evening at the theatre.

WHAT: M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Murray McGibbon.

WHEN: October 24, 25, 28 – 31, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. November 1 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre, Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center, 275 N. Jordan Avenue, Bloomington, IN

TICKETS: Regular admission is $25 for adults, $15 for students, $20 for seniors. 812.855.1103 or

Cast and creative team information is available at

For more information, contact Amy Osajima at


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