Theater Experience: Soft Power

I am sitting in the middle of the fifth row of the Curran Theater in San Francisco. Elegantly shaped metals surround a looming stage, lit to resemble twilight. It is thirty minutes in to Soft Power, the brand new satirical stage experience, described in one account as “chocolate with a razer blade inside” and one unlike anything you’ve ever seen, created by Tony Award winner and AAPI arts hero David Henry Hwang and Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori. The show focuses on Xue Xing, a Chinese executive in 2016 America, falling in love with a free-spirited U.S. leader, their relationship changing them and how they view their countries. Up to this point, the show has been a play following Xue Xing, his girlfriend Zoe, and narrator David Henry Hwang, who I’ll start referring to as “DHH,” in 2016 America. The stage is claustrophobic, placing its performers in front of walls that stand closer to the front of the stage. All of a sudden, our narrator is violently stabbed, and the stage goes black. It’s not until after the lights come back and the stage opens up to a moment that is, in equal measure, completely ridiculous but also extremely empowering.

The lights return and the show becomes DHH’s musical fever dream in which he imagines what would happen if China achieved “soft power,” in the future, akin to the United States’ current cultural dominance. “Soft power” is a persuasive approach to international relations and typically involves the use of economic or cultural influence. DHH dreams about what would happen if the Chinese appropriated the idea of musicals from the Americans. Of course, this results in a variety of hilarious, generalized assumptions and inaccuracies about American culture. A primarily Asian American cast plops on “whiteface” throughout the show, wearing blonde wigs, jeans, and of course, they’re also all carrying their beloved guns. It’s a reversal of the East constantly being exoticized in Western media and culture and a script both reverential and mocking of American musical theater.

This fever dream fantasia really blossoms when Xue Xing, the main character in this blood-thickened cotton candy dream of a show, arrives at the Hollywood Airport. After watching a “play” for the past thirty minutes, the audience is greeted by the orchestra finally revving up as colorful lights illuminate the now expansive stage. As Xue Xing steps off the plane, he is welcomed by an ensemble of Asian American dancers in their “white” get-ups. Sam Pinkerton’s impressive choreography blends a huge variety of styles, from swing to hip hop, and as five women start twerking while others are twirling, I get a little choked up, comforted and even joyful. I realized then and there that this is the first time I have ever seen anything like this: modern Asian American actors on stage living and not suffering for their craft.

I have seen every Broadway musical featuring Asian American characters in a leading role. That should not impress you because I can only think of two. Miss Saigon’s Asian actors play people in Vietnam, but their characters conform to racial stereotypes of docility and immorality. The King and I, which Soft Power also has a lot to say about and owes a debt to, only features Asian American actors playing Thai characters. While they’re on stage and get a little bit of character development, King largely hinges on a white nanny who comes to Thailand and teaches the king how to rule his own country. The Asian characters either serve as background characters or they exist to die/suffer in order to push forward the development of the (white) main character. Even when a musical’s set in their own country, the Asian characters don’t get to be the lead! Soft Power’s plot largely serves as an inversion of these kinds of imperialist tropes by following a Chinese film executive who comes to America and tries to teach the West how to run their country, with necessary musical and romantic hijinks to follow.

However, there’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, which, while it has some patronizing views about its Asian American characters, still features a variety of immigrant and “all-American” characters. My family was always really into musicals, and we had a special love for the only musical that featured, front-and-center, characters who looked like us and sang and danced just as well as their counterparts. As a child, I even created my own version with stuffed animals called Flower Dog Song. Representation is so important to me, not because it’s some way of our minority group “making it,” but it’s an acknowledgement to the world that the people depicted in art are HERE in this country, for everyone to see, whether on a stage or on a screen. They matter. George Takei’s Allegiance in 2016 gave us the chance to revisit an important part of Asian American and American history, as well as shine a light on just how easy it is to slip into modes of xenophobia and discrimination when we are afraid. While these shows have their merits, at the end of the day, they are only two shows in the annals of Broadway history on the Great White Way.

Watching this cast dance, however, was seeing a group of Asian American performers be themselves. On one level, it’s satirizing the American tendency to portray other cultures inauthentically or position them as “exotic” and “barbaric.” On another, it’s a visual manifestation of the struggle David expresses at the end of the first act—he does not feel Asian enough or American enough. That struggle has defined my life. And yet, even though the performers might be wearing blonde wigs, the audience still can recognize that they are Asian American. Our identities are both our masks and our realities simultaneously. We sing and dance and act just as well as anyone else. We are as American as everyone else. And on stage, this cast is reminding everyone sitting in the dark theater that they are HERE, and they—we—matter.

Sitting in the dark, I see myself on the stage, and I am reminded of my power.

Soft Power world premiered at the Curran Theater (445 Geary Street) in San Francisco June 20-July 8. Book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang. Music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Leigh Silverman.

(Header image courtesy Craig Schwartz Photography & the SF Examiner)