New opera recounts the life and death of Pvt. Danny Chen, an American soldier

June 16, 2014
Andrew Stenson plays Pvt. Danny Chen in David Henry Hwang's newest opera, "An American Soldier". (Photo credit: Sarah Tilotta / NPR)
Andrew Stenson plays Pvt. Danny Chen in David Henry Hwang’s newest opera, “An American Soldier”. (Photo credit: Sarah Tilotta / NPR)

Private Danny Chen, a Chinese American soldier serving in Afghanistan, was only 19 years old when he was found dead of a single gunshot wound in a guard tower in Kandahar Province. The U.S. Army initially declared the death a suicide; only after a military investigation was it revealed that Chen had endured horrific racial abuse at the hands of his supposed brothers-in-arms in the weeks leading up to his death.

The only Chinese American in his platoon, Chen had been the target of a number of racial slurs — including “gook”, “chink”, “eggroll” and “dragon lady”. He had also been hazed mercilessly: he had been beaten mercilessly with stones, dragged across gravel until bloodied and bruised, kicked repeatedly, forced to do push-ups while holding water in his mouth, and assigned excessive guard duty to the point of exhaustion. Two months after his death, eight of Chen’s fellow officers were court-martialed and charged with numerous crimes related to his death; yet, most of those charges were later dropped or reduced, including the most serious charge of involuntary manslaughter. Most of the officers involved in Chen’s death were given paltry sentences — one soldier received a mere 30 days in jail and a demotion in rank — and currently, the Army refuses to divulge any additional details in the case. Chen’s case became the impetus for new legislation in the review of military hazing deaths.

Now, playwright David Henry Hwang has refused to let Private Danny Chen’s story be forgotten; instead, he has adapted Chen’s story into an hour-long opera titled “An American Soldier”.

Chen's mother, Su Zhen Chen, at the recent re-naming ceremony in NYC's Chinatown, honouring her son, Pvt. Danny Chen. (Photo credit: Jeff Bachner / Daily News)
Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, at the recent re-naming ceremony in NYC’s Chinatown, honouring her son, Pvt. Danny Chen. (Photo credit: Jeff Bachner / Daily News)

David Henry Hwang has been described by the New Yorker as “the most successful Chinese American playwright this country has ever produced”. Writer of such seminal works as M. ButterflyFOBThe Dance and the Railroad and a contemporary revival of Flower Drum Song, Hwang has been as prolific as he has been influential for the Asian American arts.

In An American Soldier, Hwang frames Chen’s (played by tenor Andrew Stenson) death through the lens of a fictional court-martial of one of Chen’s superiors. Says Stenson to NPR’s Codeswitch:

“Danny and I are different people, but we’re young Asian-Americans in the United States,” Stenson says. “Even though you were born here or raised here, some people are still going to treat you like you’re a foreigner.”

The opera also focuses much of its attention on the relationship between Chen and his mother (played by mezzo-soprano Guang Yang). In real life, Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen, has been outspoken in trying to keep Chen’s story alive and seek justice for her son. Thank in part to her efforts, a road in New York City’s Chinatown was recently renamed Pvt. Danny Chen Way.

An American Soldier was commissioned by the Washington National Opera and will premiere this Friday at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Online tickets are no longer available, but here is the event page for more information.

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