Some 35 years after making his New York stage debut, Francis Jue has found a role that feels like a “spiritual convergence” ― in more ways than one.
The San Francisco-born actor boasts an impressive list of theatrical credits, including Broadway’s “M. Butterfly” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” However, he says his current gig in “Soft Power,” playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori’s “play with a musical,” affords him an opportunity to “say things I want to say right now, in this moment in time in our country’s history.”
“I feel like it’s the closest I’ve ever come to being able to speak from my own heart in any show or role I’ve ever played,” Jue, also seen on TV’s “Madam Secretary” and in the 2012 film “Joyful Noise,” told HuffPost. “That’s something really special. I don’t know if this moment will ever happen again for me.”
“Soft Power,” which opened off-Broadway Oct. 15 at New York’s Public Theater after stagings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, examines both American and global politics through a lens of broad satire. Set on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the show follows Hwang’s alter ego, identified simply as DHH and played by Jue, who has been selected to write a musical adaptation of a popular Chinese romantic comedy for Shanghai audiences.
Before the election results roll in, he and a Chinese theater impresario, Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), drop by a New York fundraiser in hopes of a chance encounter with none other than Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis).
After the election doesn’t turn out in Hillary’s favor, DHH is brutally attacked on a Brooklyn street corner after being mistaken for an Asian food delivery person. The incident, inspired by Hwang’s real-life experience, transports the playwright’s theatrical counterpart 100 years into the future, where China has become the dominant global power.
In his comatose state, DHH envisions Xing and Hillary as the romantic leads of a Broadway-style musical that flips the script on the problematic elements of “The King and I,” with the show-within-a-show’s Asian ensemble embodying cartoonishly played versions of American stereotypes.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, “Soft Power” boasts sequences that wink at iconic musicals of the past. An “Anything Goes”-style number featuring a tapping (and twerking) Hillary as she aims to raise votes is set in, of all places, a McDonald’s, while a lavish “Shall We Dance” homage is a highlight of Act II.
Jue, for his part, believes those eyebrow-raising scenes depict how American theater has historically appropriated other cultures and, specifically, how Asians have been portrayed onstage over the years.
“When Asians appear onstage [in America], we are representatives,” he said. “We’re symbols more than we are people at first … that’s something I think the show holds a mirror up to in entertaining and dramatic ways.”
The characters in “Soft Power” also never mention President Donald Trump by name, which Jue believes was a conscious choice made by the creative team.
“Whatever side you think you are on, we’re all feeling under siege,” he said.
While reviews of “Soft Power” have been mixed, the show’s Public Theater run has been extended twice beyond its original Nov. 3 closing date. It arrives at a critical time for Asian writers and performers in New York theater, too. A March report released by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that while 33% of all roles on New York stages went to minority actors in the 2016-17 season, Asian American performers filled just 7.3% of those roles.
Asian American playwrights wrote 1.5% of all plays produced during the same time frame, according to that survey.
Jue, a fourth-generation American, has been working steadily in theater since an off-Broadway staging of “Pacific Overtures” in 1984. In the intervening years, however, he’s been frank about being passed over for traditional parts in plays and musicals. Hence, he said, the fact that “Soft Power” reflects an Asian playwright’s perspective on modern events with a predominately Asian cast already feels like a triumph.
“One of my favorite [moments] in the show is at the very end, where I get to just stand onstage and and look at this company of brilliant Asian American performers and just reflect on their human potential,” Jue said. “Then, to look at the audience and see that they’re seeing the same thing … gives me the courage to keep on doing this.”
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