David Henry Hwang's 'Soft Power' Skewers Trumpian Nationalism In An Epically Absurd Meta-Musical
by Jay Barmann
When a person has a brush with death, it tends to have a motivating and liberating effect, especially if that person is an artist. It feels like playwright David Henry Hwang, who survived a seemingly random stabbing in his Brooklyn neighborhood in late 2015, has now turned even more fearless in tackling his favorite subjects: the awkwardness of language barriers, the cultural differences between America and China, and the liminal space of being Chinese-American and never quite belonging in either country. This time, though, he does it with the help of a fictional Hillary Clinton losing a devastating election fight, a meta-narrative about the stabbing and a project to write a Chinese TV show for a Chinese film producer, and a collection of musical numbers by acclaimed composer Jeanine Tesori. He's calling it "a play with a musical," but Soft Power, which just opened at The Curran, feels very much like a musical for much of its 140 minutes, though it's a musical seen through a bizarro lens -- as if Bialystock and Bloom from The Producers were trying to interpret the current American political climate via China's point of view, 50 years in the future.
Hwang has worked with meta-narrative before in his 2007 play Yellow Face, using himself as a character in what he called an "unreliable memoir," looking back on his experiences producing his failed play Face Value in 1993. This time, though, his inspiration came from being commissioned to write a play "about the future" for the 50th anniversary of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, and shortly thereafter seeing the Broadway revival of The King and I, a show he says he has "always loved," despite its obviously anachronistic flaws.
In Soft Power, he refers early on to the proven "delivery system" of musical theater -- how the emotionality of the form can sell almost any story, and make even hardened cynics cry -- and thus you have Asian-Americans happy to look past the white savior narrative and love The King and I.
The meta-narrative of Soft Power doubles as mythology -- the main character Xue Xing, the Chinese film producer, has an encounter with Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016, which then forms the basis for the dream play-within-the-play imagined by an unconscious and bleeding Hwang, a Chinese musical from the future that turns the King and I plot on its head. In this version, instead of a white governess who teaches an Asian king how to rule his own country and in turn how to love, we have a Chinese man who knows little about politics coming to the aid of a defeated Hillary, and teaching her how to love and fight for democracy again.
In between we get hilariously over-the-top, choreographed musical numbers (the Golden Age-esque choreography by Sam Pinkleton is worth the price of admission alone) that take place in a McDonalds, and in a Budweiser can-festooned Oval Office, in which the characters -- many of them Asian wearing blond wigs and "whiteface" -- sing and dance about the electoral system, gun control, and the messiness of democracy. And don't worry, there is no simulacrum of Donald Trump -- a fictionalized, AR-15-toting Vice President is his stand-in, referring to him only as "Supreme Leader."
As Hillary Clinton, the talented Alyse Alan Louis crackles with wit and energy, not to mention belting to the rafters in a broadly comic style that is nonetheless easy on the ears. As Xue Xing, Conrad Ricamora is equally talented and vocally gifted -- he's best known for playing Oliver on How to Get Away With Murder, but he also did a turn on Broadway as Lun Tha in the recent revival of The King and I, and his singing chops are no joke. They are backed up by a tightly knit, energetic ensemble who double both as Chinese and cartoonish American characters in the dream musical -- which, like The King and I, becomes a beloved worldwide hit in this imagined future, helping China finally to gain the "soft power" it has always craved.
Leigh Silverman, who last directed Hwang's hilarious language-barrier farce Chinglish on Broadway as well as Tesori's 2014 musical Violet, does marvelous work staging this impossibly odd but audacious show, with great comic timing throughout, and the added blessing of Pinkleton's tongue-in-cheek choreography. And out of the depths of absurdity she also creates a moment of profound power by the closing number, in which Hillary leads the cast in "I Still Believe In Democracy" -- bringing this political fever dream home, and transforming what was meta into a rousing anthem of optimism. Thursday night's San Francisco audience had already started the standing ovation two numbers prior, and suffice it to say the house veritably leapt to its feet before the final notes were sung, and some of the cast were in tears.
This is a show that is both whip-smart in its humor and commentary on the Trump era, as much as it is comically messy in its own right. Artists continue trying to confront our current epoch through any lens they can, but Hwang's spark of genius in Soft Power is to do so from the very perspective of Trump's greatest political nemesis, and the country he most wants to punish and defy. Is it almost impossible to imagine a Chinese culture that allows its citizens the liberty to laugh at themselves and America in this way? Of course. But what better way to satirize what feels like a horrible mistake of history than to do so through the eyes of a country so diametrically different from ours, turning Hillary Clinton into a deposed queen hiding out in a "rebel safe house" somewhere in San Francisco.
As producer and Curran owner Carole Shorenstein Hays says, "There is a rare kind of electricity that only happens around bonafide geniuses in close collaboration." Such a collaboration is on view here, between Hwang, Tesori, Silverman, and Pinkleton, with some Broadway-caliber talent on stage. I look forward to seeing this show make a splash in New York, and remind everyone again how breaking all the rules with the "delivery system" of musical theater can produce such dazzling results.
Soft Power plays through July 8 at The Curran. Find tickets here.