‘Soft Power,’ The Uplifting Play/Musical by David Henry Hwang is Nothing Short of Brilliant
David Henry Hwang’s awards and honors are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say he won the Tony Award, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critics Award for M. Butterfly (1988). He is a prodigious author, playwright, librettist and screenwriter who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times. With Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman, Hwang has crafted a mesmerizing production. Soft Power is a genre hybrid, a musical-fantasy-farce within a satire-comedy with autobiographical overtones. Primarily, the musical within a play concerns Chinese/American custom disparities, U.S./China relations and events around the U.S. 2016 election and afterward. To my mind it is Hwang’s finest theatrical production to date.
I saw a number of his works including the original production of M. Butterfly (1988) and the revival (2017), productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Dance and the Railroad-2013, Golden Child-2013, Kung Fu-2014) and an Off Off Broadway production of Yellow Face in 2009. I saw Chinglish (2011) on Broadway twice.
For Soft Power, Hwang wrote the lyrics, with Jeanine Tesori composing the music and additional lyrics. With choreography by Sam Pinkleton and a large Asian cast, Leigh Silverman, a long time collaborator with Hwang, shepherded the creatives and ensemble with sensitivity. Her adroit mastery pushing the envelope to achieve the right balance of comedy, irony, satire, humor, musical-fantasy-farce and stark reality to elucidate Hwang’s varied themes is a prime achievement of this production.
Hwang’s themes in this play/musical are on steroids to his credit. One should see this production a number of times; it is replete with concepts to think about including these: the U.S. is considered a dangerous country and visitors from abroad are warned of the mass shootings and white nationalist terrorist attacks. Among other concepts Hwang confronts with irony in the musical-fantasy sequence are the proliferation of guns. There is a sardonically funny song the Veep sings with the ensemble, “Good Guy With a Gun.” Hwang highlights the increasing, bigoted, racist, xenophobic attacks on those who are not “white and right.” And he ironically underscores China’s move toward westernization with the U.S. creep into autocracy under an unnamed (Hwang will not dignify his name, again to his credit), lawless president and the culture his lawlessness promotes.
Another important theme the entire play and the musical presents is what it is to be an American who lives in a democracy whose constitution guarantees the freedoms it does and most especially the right of every citizen to vote. In the musical-fantasy sequence and even in the play that frames the musical, Hwang’s protagonists go head to head arguing the benefits of freedom and democracy vs. China’s autocracy and selection of leaders. Throughout, the playwright zeroes in on what it is like to be a Chinese-American in a nation that had deep xenophobic roots and anti-immigrant sentiment that since the last election have surfaced and would continue to grow into a poisonous tree overshadowing constitutional freedoms, unless the equivalent of weed killer in the form of love dissolves it at the root!
The opening scene of the play is autobiographical. DHH is on the street with groceries in front of his home, right before he was stabbed in his neck and nearly died. Played by Francis Jue who is nuanced, innocent, astutely honest, funny and sings with gorgeous resonance and power, DHH questions whether he will be “able to live in the country anymore.” Then the scene quickly shifts. Hwang cleverly dislocates us in time and we follow along to the next scene unaware of what will happen to him and the import of his comment.
In the next scene DHH meets with Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora is near perfect as the debonair, well-meaning, sophisticated, musical lead-Chinese style), head of the North American Division of Dragon Entertainment based in Shanghai. Xūe Xíng presents the “soft power” idea to commission DHH to write a musical based on a film with a hysterical title roughly translated, “Stick With Your Mistake.” Xūe Xíng tells the dubious DHH that because he is a renowned and successful Chinese American playwright, he would be the perfect candidate to write a musical that will open the Dragon Palace in Shanghai when it is finished. But when Xūe Xíng tells him what the film is about, DHH disagrees with the ending based on cultural American values. The film is about a couple who love other people and desire to split up; following Chinese mores, they remain together. We discover later that this film is “close” to Xūe Xíng’s heart, though the Chinese populace is changing and may find the ending “old-fashioned” as DHH suggests.
DHH must leave because he is off to see The King and I, then meet Hillary Clinton at a presidential candidate reception. He invites Xūe Xíng to go with him and the married Xūe Xíng brings his lover Zoe Samuels (Alyse Alan Louis). Louis also plays Hillary Clinton in the musical-fantasy sequences and is hysterical when she sings as Hillary the “Song of The Campaign Trail” and then in full throated, uplifted glory, the smashing “Democracy.” She is sensational.
In this scene between DHH and Xūe Xíng and then with Zoe, Hwang establishes many of the humorous tropes that will follow throughout the play. The playwright references differences between Chinese culture and American culture regarding politics and election of leaders. The dialogue reveals the differences in understanding and behavior. And there is the usual mangling of the Chinese language by Americans which is humorous, especially as DHH doesn’t know how to speak his Dad’s and mom’s birth language because he was born in the U.S.
For the Chinese, duty and obligation are paramount. For Americans following one’s heart is paramount. Chinese rarely show emotion; Americans as a group show emotions and allow their feelings to be expressed. Also, during this exchange we see the exemplification of China’s concept of “soft power“ in what Xūe Xíng hopes to accomplish with Chinese-American DHH. DHH will be perfect to write a smash hit for the Chinese in a cross cultural exchange. Humorously, Xūe Xíng references Lion King and Mama Mia, but since they will be seeing The King and I before meeting Hillary, Xūe Xíng hopes DHH will write that type of musical hit for China. Considering the elements of colonialism, DHH ironically points out the problems with the Rogers and Hammerstein II musical as something he would not want to write.
When Xūe Xíng suggests that China be in the position of the colonial power (the “I”), schooling the “King” (the U.S.), the implication is absolutely hysterical. Xūe Xíng’s sardonic riff about the U.S. barbaric Asian war policies abroad (with Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, China), and at home (the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment during WWII), needing to be refined toward civility (as the teacher schools the King and the children in The King and I), is priceless. Also, the concept of China being the advanced and the U.S. being the inferior (it is happening as I write this thanks to the current U.S. president’s policies from Climate Change to tariffs) is not only funny it is incredibly ironic.
Hwang riffs on himself with humor as character DHH responds ironically about his plays-they are not quite in the same vein as Lion King, nor is his idea of a smash musical being “Sticking With Your Mistake.” But it is at this juncture we understand the underlying premise of China’s initiative to curry favor with globalists by “leveraging their cultural assets and spending large sums of money” to create initiatives in the arts, etc. This is how to influence, how to find an acceptable way into other countries’ minds and hearts. When DHH suggests that such a film may not be what the younger Chinese want, interested in modernizing toward America, Xūe Xíng suggests that America may become more like China. Hwang’s portentous meaning cannot be understated.
The scene shifts again and DHH’s America is falling apart; Hillary lost. DHH argues with Xūe Xíng about the efficacy of everyone having the right to vote and electing the most qualified candidate in the popular vote and losing in the electoral college which Xūe Xíng finds appalling and illogical. It is a humorously frustrating exchange. The scene shifts; DHH is alone in front of his home in Brooklyn. Xūe Xíng has rubbed his point in about the election in the U.S. DHH questions how he can remain in a country that “voted for a guy that doesn’t believe we belong here,” and remain in a country to be nothing more than “supporting characters in someone else’s story.”
It is then Hwang brings us full circle out from the flashback into the opening scene of the play. As he ruminates about being a second class citizen as a Chinese American in the U.S., something happens that confirms his estimation, but it is beyond expectation. Reality slams into him and us. DHH as David Henry Hwang is stabbed by some white guy. Luckily, he yells in UNACCENTED ENGLISH, “WTF!” and the attacker runs away. As DHH applies pressure to the wound as per the Boy Scout instructions he learned as a kid, he walks toward the hospital and just before losing consciousness and fainting, he hears violins. And the musical-fantasy-satire emerges with chorus, dancing, orchestra and more as DHH hovers between life and death in what is a also a metaphoric rendering of his identity as a Chinese American.
Act One of the musical begins as DHH’s dream. The previous action repeats but with intensified be-spectacled musical numbers sung by Asian actors in white face. In another sardonic twist we are back in time at the beginning of Xūe Xíng’s story revealed from his perspective about his time in the U.S. After he says goodbye to his daughter (Kendyl Ito), who warns him about going to the dangerous country (“Dutiful”), he lands at Kennedy airport (“Welcome to America”), in what Hwang describes as a “deeply militarized, religious fundamentalist, violent society.” Hwang’s focus on Xūe Xíng’s perspective reveals what it is like for a foreign traveler nearly getting defrauded. However, Xūe Xíng, the hero, humorously turns the situation around by hiring a body guard Bobby Bob (the funny Austin Ku), who is always in the shadows to protect him. After all, this is a positive musical.
In this segment, DHH again converses with Xūe Xíng about the play he might write, and they go to meet Hillary (“I’m With Her,” ). In Hwang’s roiling unconsciousness he dreams Xūe Xíng and Hillary bond together as Xūe attempts to teach her his name (“It Just Takes Time”). They satirize the reverse of the relationship in “The King and I” with Hillary in the barbaric country position and Xūe Xíng as the “I.” The scene is sardonic, considering the idealized players; Alyse Alan Louis is an exuberant Hillary (she looks like Chelsea), and Conrad Ricamora is the civil, gentlemanly, Asian leading man. The satire and irony here are profound as they dance a waltz referencing, The King and I.
As the election results are tabulated, the song “Election Night” is sung by the Chief Justice (the very funny Jon Hoche), and the ensemble. They sing a LOL description of the American election process and the dire Electoral College. But at the announcement that the “guy who hates China” won, white nationalists storm the building and in the process DHH is stabbed. In a dramatic duet (“I Am”), beautifully sung by DHH (Ju) and Xūe Xíng (Ricamora). DHH realizes he has been a fake, neither Chinese, nor American in a full blown identity crisis. With Xūe Xíng’s encouragement, he affirms he is one whole not separate and distinct cultures. That viewpoint is one of love. Holding the bleeding DHH, Xūe Xíng counsels himself to the Chinese way of not showing feeling or emotion. As he faints, DHH states “Democracy has broken my heart.” The angry white nationalist mob marches with tiki torches, guns and bats. Xūe Xíng poignantly questions, “What is this America? Why do I cry for America?” as Act I chillingly ends with an emotional and heart-wrenching flourish.
Soft Power as a musical is maverick. It is revolutionary theater breaking genre molds. It diverges in the arc of development which swings like a pendulum including flashback, framing of the main story of DHH’s stabbing and his interactions and impact on Xūe Xíng and vice-versa. The action in the musical loops back revealing the story focusing more on Xūe Xíng’s perspective and the quasi love story between him and Hillary which could be read as symbolic of two countries brought together by love. Of course in DHH’s dream to recovery, there is the realistic component, but the musical is fantastic truth; in it DHH has supplanted Zoe with Hillary.
Additionally, in another amazing twist of the plot and in full on irony in a theater of the absurdist style, Act Two begins with a commentary interlude as a panel sits to discuss the impact of Soft Power fifty years later. Hwang’s panel comments on DHH’s stabbing as a “secondary character” and they argue about the form of the musical being developed in China by Xūe Xíng as “spoken and sung drama.” One expert states there are no American artists, only native craftspeople.
In this brief scene, we as audience members have been shifted via sci-fi to the future. We get to view the play in a retrospective as Hwang comments on himself ironically. The experts (one who specializes in second-world nations-that is what America has become), argues with an American expert, Adjunct Professor of American Folklore at Columbia University about the genre. The Professor argues that some of the New York entertainments were sophisticated: “One of the most popular was entirely about cats.” Clearly, Hwang gets to dish on Broadway’s tourist fare which rankles New Yorkers, especially during the holidays. The Chinese refer to these American shows by “a second-world nation” as “regional folk art,” which the Chinese as a first world nation elevated. The ironies are telling.
Sadly, their discussion of why DHH was stabbed is Hwang’s factual indictment of white supremacy which his experts fifty years later also refer to as a “random act of violence.” Hwang’s theme of the U.S. as a dangerous country for a traveler is brought to bear for all Americans, especially the politician who would refuse to bring the gun legislation that has been passed in the House to the floor of the Senate.
In reality, David Henry Wang was stabbed before the 2016 election. The violent undercurrents in this nation have been there in each century. America as fantasy-land of the golden dream has many caveats, one of them gun violence, the other xenophobia. These two have been merged into companions by the current president, whose rhetoric has exacerbated the violence. Hwang uses the musical to unleash the satire about the election, guns, etc., because when all has been said, satire hits the target most memorably and is unforgettable.
The musical resumes and ends with Hillary overcoming her losing blues and upholding “Democracy,” perhaps the finest song in the show. DHH awakens and the ensemble joins him in singing the reprise of “Democracy,” which is beyond uplifting for not only Americans but for those remaining democracies in the world. Finally, DHH encapsulates what the citizens of this nation believe, “good fortune will follow, if we somehow survive in America.”
Kudos to all creatives involved :Clint Ramos (scenic design), Anita Yavich (costume design), Mark Barton (lighting design), Kai Harada (sound design), Bart Fasbender (sound effects design), Bryce Cutler (video design), Tom Watson (hair, wig and makeup design), Lillis Meeh (special effects), Danny Troob (orchestrations), with John Clancy (dance music arrangement/additional orchestrations), Larry Hochman (additional orchestrations), Antoine Silverman (music contractor), Chris Fenwick (music supervisor/music director).
Currently playing at the Public Theater until 17th November, Soft Power is sold out after a number of extensions. Someone may donate their tickets to the Public, so check the theater in the remaining days. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until Soft Power goes to Broadway which it must. The show is astonishing. David Henry Hwang has exceeded even himself and it would be a shame if more people didn’t see it, especially this next year before the 2020 elections. In its hope, its simplicity and complexity, its truth, its charity, it is what we need right now and for as long as we are able to maintain our democratic republic.
Posted on November 13, 2019, in NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway, The Public Theater and tagged Alyse Alan Louis, Austin Ku, Conrad Ricamora, David Henry Hwant, Francis Jue, Jeanine Tesori, Leigh Silverman, Raymond J. Lee, Sam Pinkleton, Soft Power, The Public Theater. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.