Soft Power is the latest work and first collaboration between Tony Award winners David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori. When an American playwright struggles to create a Sex and the City-esque TV show with a Chinese executive, a near fatal stabbing sends the former into a dream musical. The Chinese executive arrives in America in 2016, where he falls in love with a strong-willed leader. In the aftermath of the presidential election, they find hope in each other as the power dynamics between their two countries drastically shifts. The show is currently running at the Curran in San Francisco until July 8th.
Soft Power is made up of a predominantly Asian American cast, with Francis Jue (M. Butterfly) and Conrad Ricamora (How to Get Away with Murder) as two of the leads. In a phone interview, the two actors discussed what it was like to work with David Henry Hwang, the significance of Soft Power during the current social and political climate, and their experiences as Asian American actors.
Can you explain who you play in Soft Power?
Conrad Ricamora: I play Xue Xing and he’s a Chinese business man and film executive, coming to America to work with David Henry Hwang on developing a television show that’s like Sex and the City but set in Shanghai. He is very much by the rules and hasn’t really gotten in touch with his own feelings throughout his whole life. He’s really just focused on service to his country and to his family and to his business, but never stops to think about what he really wants.
Francis Jue: I play David Henry Hwang in a play written by David Henry Hwang (no pressure). For a long time, I felt as though I was playing sort of the inner child, the id of the actual David Henry Hwang who is able to express his own vanity, his own impulsive known feelings in a way that he doesn’t in everyday life. At the same time, he puts himself in a play that talks about how China is trying to present itself to the world, trying to gain soft power through collaborating with him, an experience that he actually had.
But it also deals with something else that happened in David’s own life, where he was assaulted and nearly killed. His assailant was never captured, and so the police’s best theory was that he was assaulted because he’s Asian, and this was at a time in New York when there were assaults and random attacks on Asian people: being slashed, being pushed in front of subway trains, being hit in the back of the head.
And so the play, I began to learn, was not just a play where David was wailing against these kinds of things, and I learned that this character is not just his inner child. In a way, he grows up to realize that the enormity of what happened to him is an example of what is happening around this country, and how that is reflected, and perhaps even influenced, by how we portray people and ourselves in things like The King and I.
How has it been working with David Henry Hwang?
CR: It’s been really, really challenging in the best way. During the rehearsal process, he’ll get so specific and will sometimes alter huge paragraphs, but sometimes will alter a word within a sentence and it will change the whole flow of the scene and the whole arc of the scene in a really great way. That specified the moment that makes the character clearer and, in a way, I’m still discovering him when performing him every night.
Also, it’s just been great. He’s been really collaborative. There have been times when I’ve spoken up in rehearsal. As an actor, you start living in the character’s skin and start feeling impulses that aren’t on the page. He was just so great and open to hearing those ideas, and then sometimes implementing them as changes in the script.
The other really challenging thing is that he works really fast and so we were given new pages throughout the process. That was a really great challenge to come to rehearsal everyday and get pages and then be like, “Alright, I’m going to keep up with this. I got to not get discouraged with any of the choices that I was making.” Learn how to go with the flow and discard some of the things that I was investing in, in order to work on the piece of the whole.
What was your initial impression of the show, given how thematically synced it is to the current social and political climate?
CR: It’s more current than any show I’ve been a part of. There are headlines, literally every day, every week, that change our show because the theater is vibrating. You feel it coming.
There are times where we’ll deliver a passage, and it would feel like everyone in the theater is holding their breath because we don’t know how these things are playing out currently. So when we talk about them in the theater, it’s so fresh and raw in a way that everyone is listening, everyone has an opinion, and everyone is still waiting to see what the outcome of all of these things like immigration. That really is tied to racism. Those things and more are changing daily in our headlines.
That just makes the show really, really vibrant and grounded. It works and makes you think on so many levels, that you can’t get into your seat in the theater for this show and mentally check out the way you can with The King and I or Miss Saigon.
FJ: I think David is often pegged as somebody who writes about what it means to be Chinese in America, and [in] this play, I think they start to feel that, but then it quickly becomes an examination of what it means to be an American. That’s a question that I think is very much on the front burner right now, as the kind of ideals that we all have been taught from the moment we were born here seem to be changing. Do we really believe in them or not?
What do you hope for the future of Soft Power?
CR: I just hope that it keeps connecting with more audiences, with different areas of the world. Really, that’s the joy of doing it every night and even this new joy of doing it in a different location in San Francisco. It’s this renewed energy that I feel we’re able to bring into another part of the country. As a performer, to experience, “Okay, how is this area going to vibrate with this show?” Personally, taking in and growing from that experience and learning more about the energy in this part of the country, that’s really all I hope for.
FJ: I have such great hopes for this show, but I also hope that this show leads the way for a lot of other artists and a lot of other artistic institutions and a lot of other producers to be brave enough to respond in a way that Soft Power does; in a way that David and Jeanine [Tesori] and Leigh [Silverman] and Sam [Pinkleton] have responded to the situation we find ourselves in. When we experience a crisis as a community, as a culture, as a nation, this is what art does best. It reflects back and it demands that we examine and revel in and have to descend what we believe.
What can you say about your experiences as Asian American actors of both stage and screen?
CR: I didn’t do any acting growing up. Right after undergrad, I got into acting, and I got into it by taking classes in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then I started doing community theatre. My first paid job was [in a production] of Anything Goes, and I was playing one of the Chinese characters that was written so racist. The choreographer, at one point during rehearsal, came up to me and was just like, “Can you be more Chinese?”
That was the first and last time I ever did something like that, and it’s so funny because I then did, a few months later for the same company, West Side Story as one of the Sharks, but they didn’t ask me to be as Latino or Puerto Rican as possible. I played Chino in that production and I was allowed to develop a fully, three dimensional character.
That was my first experience of something like that; with racism that can be engrained in not just our culture, but in American theatre. Luckily I haven’t had to encounter it going forward as much, or I steered away subconsciously from things like that. I feel lucky to be on a Shonda Rhimes show, where the landscape really fully represents what America looks like, and that I get to play a character that just happens to be Asian on the show, but is not commented about it. It’s not about his Asianness.
I’m developing a pilot with two of my Asian friends called No Rice, and it’s about our experiences as gay Asian men dating in New York City. We’ve written and blocked out the whole first season, but we’re all really busy doing shows, so we don’t know when we’re actually going to have time to do it, but that’s what I’m looking forward to.
FJ: I always took it very, very seriously as a craft and I found a lot of satisfaction in actually doing the work. I never thought I could do it for a living, but I really studied hard in rehearsals. I never took classes in it, but I just kept working. I was lucky enough in college to suddenly find myself hired for the first New York revival of Pacific Overtures by Asian Pacific performers; all of whom were making it in the business. I feel like [I’ve had] an impossible career. I’ve been very, very lucky to have played both Asian characters and Asian American characters and cast nontraditionally in all sorts of things.
What kills me the most about doing Soft Power is watching these young, incredible Asian American actors, all of whom are more skilled and more talented than I ever was at their age, and they simply don’t have the opportunities that they deserve and they don’t have the opportunities that most other people in our business are given. A lot of Asian American performers just wait until the next production of Miss Saigon or The King and I or Flower Drum Song to come along, instead of most other performers looking at the entire range of stuff that is out there and submitting themselves to what they think is right.
We are, as a whole, not seen as people. We’re seen as representatives of our ethnicity, our race, our culture. So while things are getting better, I believe that we still have a very long way to go. The good news is that there is a whole new generation of Asian American theatre makers, writers, directors, designers who are phenomenal, and are starting to get produced and produced again. I’m optimistic but I’m impatient. I have so much hope for the people like the ones in our company who are so, so prepared and just so much to give and are so good at giving it.
What did your families make of your pursuits in the arts?
FJ: So my folks did not really want me to do this professionally. They said that they would disown me if I majored in it in school. When I took time off to do the revival of Pacific Overtures from college, they said, “Well fine. You’re on your own then. If you’re going to do that, we’re not paying. We’re not going to help you out.”
But at the time, this was 1984. I think I was making $225 a week and I thought I was rich and still, I did not think I could do it for a living. So after the show closed, I went back to school. I got my degree in English literature and went back to San Francisco. I worked at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, until a casting director, who had seen me in Pacific Overtures, called me out of the blue at work and said, “We need a new understudy for M. Butterfly. I’m coming through San Francisco to audition people. Would you read for me?”
My folks came to see me when I starred in M. Butterfly on tour in San Diego. My dad, who was an engineer for the Navy, came backstage afterwards and saw the crew cleaning things up. He saw how many people there were and he looked at me and said, “This looks like work.” My mom, who didn’t recognize me in the play, it impressed her that it wasn’t just me getting up there and goofing off. It was actually something that she didn’t know about me. She suddenly saw it as work as well.
Ever since then, they were very, very supportive. It didn’t stop them from worrying about being able to feed myself or pay the rent. They were the generation that had processional jobs to make money and raise families and they acknowledged that my generation was the generation that got to choose what they wanted to do and to work for love.
CR: I went through a period of time where I was just trying to find my way. I didn’t keep in touch with my family in my early 20’s through to my mid 20’s. When I first started out, they just thought I was figuring out who I was and what I wanted to do, and that was true. So every now and then, my dad would be like, “Ever think about using your [psychology] degree?” And I was like, “No, I never think about it, because I don’t want to do that.”
Two years into pursuing acting as a profession, I got a tiny, tiny role in Talladega Nights with Will Ferrell, and it was just me and him in a car. I was onscreen for only 15 seconds. They went and saw it in the theater and they were like, “Oh, okay. You’re really doing this.” They could see my name in the credits in the end and they were like, “Okay, this looks like something real.”
Based on the representation of Asian Americans in the arts currently, how do you think it’s going to change in the future?
CR: It kind of feels like we have a leap forward and then two steps back. We’ll get something like Fresh Off The Boat being produced and then we’ll still hear two or three articles about Scarlett Johansson playing an Asian character or Emma Stone playing an [Asian] character. I’m then like, “Are you kidding me? I thought we were moving forward!”
I feel like that’s just going to continue. We’re going to have more breakthroughs and then another step back where people are going to be like, “Wait! Do we really have to tell you that this isn’t okay again?” That’s the way it feels for me.
FJ: I feel like we’re still waiting for our cultural breakthrough. I keep thinking that we still have yet to have our Raisin in the Sun or The Cosby Show. Moments where a family, an Asian or Asian American family, has a moment that becomes a sort of cultural touch point where we are simply acknowledged as human beings, who share the same needs and troubles and wants as other people. It’s not that those haven’t been written or ever produced on their own scale. But that cultural moment where it has become a part of the fabric of our nation, I think, just hasn’t happened yet.
But I think that’s on the horizon. I think that it’s going to happen and I think it’s going to surprise me. I just hope that I’m there for it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Join CAAM and our friends at Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, and the Chinatown Community Development Center this Saturday, June 30th at 2 pm at the Curran for a special matinee performance of Soft Power.
Immediately following the 2 pm matinee performance, join us in the Curran’s 2nd floor lobby for an invite-only reception and meet and greet with cast members.
Use the code SP630 for 20% off tickets (excluding balcony). Please note that the discount is reflected at checkout. In order to be added to the guest list for the post-show reception, you will need to buy your ticket(s) using the code SP630.
Buy tickets here: https://sfcurran.com/shows/soft-power/