Francis Jue and the Company of Soft Power

Review of Soft Power at the Public Theater

Austin Yang
Austin Yang

One feels fortunate to be alive in a time where artists from marginalized demographics are getting a long overdue platform to stage boldly authentic and incisive works, made by and for themselves. Recent shows like Slave Play and A Strange Loop have also demonstrated their economic viability. With Soft Power, currently running at the Public Theater, it feels like Asian artists are finally getting their turn.

The King and I, but with the roles reversed? It's less gimmicky than you'd think! When a self-inserted David Henry Hwang is stabbed in the neck immediately following the election of [Not Hillary Clinton], he conceives a vision of such a show: One that takes every single trope of the white-savior-travels-to-exotic-country narrative, and flips it on its head. Xue Xing, a Shanghai-based producer of musicals, is sent to New York to oversee the adaptation of a popular Chinese film into a Broadway musical (written by DHH's own fever dream counterpart). When Xue is introduced to Hillary Clinton at a reception, a 'King and I' scenario develops, complete with its own "Shall We Dance" scene about learning the tones in Mandarin. Elections, politics, and romance ensue.

In art, especially in theatre, the deepest politics are intensely personal in origin. There's a special feeling evoked by the justice that underlies the humor in Soft Power. When I see the "white" ensemble played by Asians in blonde wigs, the generalization and simplification of American culture, the Chinese outsider pointing out the fallacies of American government, I laugh, but I also understand that they represent years of POC marginalization at the hands of white writers. Are the Americans portrayed as caricatures? Does the "New Silk Road" ending of the fantasy musical, wherein America lays down its arms to enter the future under Chinese guidance, seem slightly propagandist? Does it echo the implicit colonialism of Xi Jingping's own "Belt and Road" initiative? Were the roles reversed, I'm dubious any of this would be under much scrutiny.

David Henry Hwang's masterfully crafted satire utilizes the structures of genre and comedy to defy them both and bring out the truth of his message. This is echoed by all members of the immensely stacked creative team. Jeanine Tesori's masterful score one-ups Rodgers and Hammerstein, blending traditional Chinese sounds with big, brassy Broadway. Clint Ramos's set, liberal on the cadmium red, seems to say: "Hey Michael Yeargen, I see your Mongkut's palace, and I raise you...McDonald's." And Sam Pinkerton's kinetic, culturally-inclusive choreography is brought to life by an incomparably talented ensemble of triple threats.

An exclusive gathering of Asian artists this large still happens only so often, folks! Catch Conrad Ricamora, the leading man Broadway deserves, act his heart out alongside Francis Jue's sympathetic narration as DHH. It'd also be a sin to miss Alyse Alan Louis's Hillary Clinton swing, tap, and twerk on top of a Big Mac set piece in only one of many show-stopping numbers.

Soft Power, especially as a pastiche, speaks to many personal things about being Asian in America, including appropriation, discrimination, and an identity crisis that involves clashing ideologies within oneself. Asian Americans are faced with this duality daily: The Eastern ideals of duty versus the Western notion of following one's heart. These fall into the even larger issues of American freedom, with its risk of chaos, and Chinese order, which comes at a cost.

DHH believed in democracy, and was literally stabbed for it. But there's a cautious optimism in the character and creator's response of "stick with your mistake". He argues that Asian Americans represent both face and heart, and both are needed in America, because neither are passive options. Love, regardless of how one goes about it, means sticking with it when the chips are down.

The musical ends with its almost entirely Asian ensemble, now representing only themselves as Asians and Americans, marching together in an anthemic dream that people will one day be enough to deserve democracy. They believe.

That's a soft power of its own.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Bristling with ideas that rarely get dramatized, let alone in such imaginative form, it is something of a miracle but also something of a muddle, the ideas scrambling over one another for prominence and the ingenious form unable to corral them. Still, those ideas — about the betrayals inherent in love, democracy and musicals themselves — are too exciting and important to dismiss by quibbling them to death."
Jesse Green for New York Times

"David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori's perplexing new musical Soft Power attempts to do three things at once: tell the real story of a 2015 stabbing attack on Hwang; do a The King and I-like turn that both romanticizes and criticizes a stereotypical America; and opine on the 2016 presidential election. There is an intermission, and the Public Theater has two bars. Start a tab."
Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

"There are some thrills in the show, not least the final image: a full-stage chorus line of the large,  nearly entirely Asian cast, singing its (broken) heart out about America. But the show still seems to be finding its feet, working out the order in which it wants to tell its story and Hwang's place in it. A great deal of thinking has gone into Soft Power, as well as anger and despair. Now it just needs to discover its flow."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

"The new collaboration between playwright David Henry Hwang (M. ButterflyYellow Face) and composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun HomeViolet) is being billed as a "musical-within-a-play," but that mild description doesn't begin to aptly capture the fever dream that is Soft Power. Now receiving its New York premiere at The Public Theater, the show tackles East-West relations, the failings of American democracy, the last presidential election, the "problematical" aspects of the classic musical The King and I and the near-fatal real-life stabbing of Hwang. Oh, did I mention the singing-and-dancing Hillary Clinton and musical number in which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court explains the intricacies of the Electoral College?"
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

"The "culture-clash musical" is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or "other." David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori's Soft Power, the new "play with a musical" at Off Broadway's Public Theater, upends that form — and our expectations — in a thrilling, moving and revolutionary way. You may never look at an American musical the same way again."
Frank Rizzo for Variety


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