‘Power’ Play

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David Henry Hwang offers a witty musical-drama for the Trump era.

Conrad Ricamora (center) plays Xue Xing, a Chinese executive experiencing American culture, in David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power.” Performing in whiteface are cast members (from left) Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

“So that happened … ” said David Henry Hwang, speaking of an incident that put the award-winning playwright in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On Nov. 29, 2016, Hwang was walking down the street near his home in Brooklyn, when he felt a pain in the back of his neck, as if he had been struck.

Feeling unsteady, he placed his hand on his neck and only then realized he had been stabbed — an unknown assailant had severed his vertebral artery. From his days in Boy Scouts as a Chinese American kid growing up in San Gabriel, he knew to put pressure on the wound, and, after leaving a note at home for his wife and daughter, walked himself to the hospital. He lost nearly a third of his blood and drifted in and out of consciousness.

A suspect was never arrested. Because there was no robbery attempt, some speculate that he may have been targeted because he is Asian. Hwang himself plays down the event. Less than a week later, he was at the Longacre Theatre to prepare for an interview with George Takei, then starring on Broadway in “Allegiance.”

Ricamora with Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

“Police said if they had caught the person, they would have charged the person with attempted murder. So I survived a murder attempt and I got some more time on this planet and if anything, it’s made me want to do more. I’ve become busier. I’ve wanted to use my time more productively because I have this extra time,” Hwang said in an interview Monday with The Rafu.

“Soft Power,” now in its world premiere run at the Ahmanson Theater, is the remarkable product of this extra time. That harrowing episode forms the pivot point between two distinct sections of what is a musical within a play.

“Soft Power” is perhaps Hwang’s most ambitious work, spinning elements of Broadway musical, cross-cultural satire, politics and personal narrative into a rousing, challenging, and ultimately uplifting work of theater.

The play presents two versions of the same events: first as a contemporary comedy, told from an American perspective, set in 2016 on the eve of the presidential election. And then as a big Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical, written sometime in the future from the Chinese point of view, replete with chorus girls and fantastical staging, set to a terrific score by Jeanine Tesori, working with Hwang for the first time. Tesori shared the Tony in 2015 with Lisa Kron for the score to “Fun Home.”

“Such a smooth collaboration, it is very fluid between us. Sometimes I give her lyrics and she says ‘Great,’ and puts it to music, and other times she says, ‘Write a speech, give me some language,’ and turns that into a song,” Hwang said.

Francis Jue portrays a fictional version of Hwang, who is pitching a project to Chinese film executive Xue Xing, played by the charismatic Conrad Ricamora, perhaps best known for his turn as Oliver on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” Xue offers notes to Hwang to change his script to edit out obvious commentary that the Chinese bureaucracy may find embarrassing, such as the air quality in Shanghai.

Xue seems less than thrilled with DHH, until he mentions that he will be attending a campaign event for Hillary Clinton, whose shocking loss to Donald Trump in the presidential election hangs over “Soft Power,” a term that describes a nation’s influence through art and culture as opposed to the hard power of military might.

Trump’s victory led to some changes in the play. The play was co-commissioned by the Centre Theatre Group and The Public Theater New York. It represents a homecoming for Hwang, whose revival of “Flower Drum Song” in 2001 and Pulitzer Prize finalist “Yellow Face” were staged by CTG. East West Players is also a co-producer of the production.

From left, playwright David Henry Hwang, composer Jeanine Tesori and
Ricamora backstage after the opening night performance of the world
premiere of “Soft Power” on May 16. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

Hwang had first conceived of “Soft Power” with the assumption that Clinton would be the next president. In a twist on “The King and I,” Clinton is the sympathetic leader of a backwards nation, who is taught important lessons by a heroic Chinese outsider.

Hillary, played with pathos and spunk by Alyse Alan Louis, is the surprise of the show, or as Hwang quips — “She sings, she dances, she’s funny.”

The production reached out to Clinton, who in the aftermath of her defeat, became a familiar sight on Broadway. Hwang said he hopes she will see “Soft Power” someday. The play runs in L.A. through June 10, before heading to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre from June 20 to July 8.

“We did not want to publicize that until we had a chance to apprise Hillary Clinton out of respect that she was a character. I think we constructed a very loving and human and sympathetic portrait,” Hwang said.

Of course, the election results led to necessary changes.

“When we made that adjustment, the structure of the show didn’t change so much as the stakes of the situation were intensified. Now the show could also interrogate the idea of democracy,” Hwang said.

“The Chinese notion that democracy, as Xue Xing says, only causes chaos and instability — which is the Chinese point of view.”

Indeed, as the fallout from the 2016 election continues to manifest, the idea that there is something broken with way America chooses its leaders doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

As much as the show is a commentary on the current occupant of the White House, it never mentions Trump by name. Hwang says this choice is intentional.

“Trump is the equivalent of the King in the ‘King and I.’ We don’t hear the King’s name,” he explains.

The fun of “Soft Play” is watching Hwang play with stereotypes and the assumptions that a Chinese playwright might have of America, in the same way that “King and I” perpetuates stereotypes of Asians. When Xue arrives in Hollywood, the yokels are all waving guns at the slightest provocation. A visit to a fancy restaurant is — naturally — a trip to McDonald’s.

The cast, primarily Asian American, perform in various forms of whiteface. Hwang said the lack of diversity in popular culture impacted him growing up.

“If I felt oppressed by anything in America, it was American arts and culture,” Hwang said. “For me to be able to grab the levers in that machine and work it for my own purposes is satisfying.”

The playwright remains a strong advocate for diversity in the arts and has been a mentor to young writers. He cited the work of young Asian American writers, including Lauren Yee (“Cambodian Rock Band”), Julia Cho (“Office Hour”) and Michael Lew (“Teenage Dick”).

“When it comes to theater, one of the things that’s encouraging is that there are lots of great Asian American playwrights who are younger than me. That’s really hopeful,” he said.

“I try to mentor individual writers and generally have since after I turned 40ish. That’s the beauty of the art, of what we do as playwrights. It’s not super different than it was 2,000 years ago.

“Like being a shoemaker, cobbler, you pass down a trade.”

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Tickets for “Soft Power” are available by calling (213) 972-4400, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or at the Center Theatre Group Box Office, located at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $30 to $130 (prices are subject to change). The Ahmanson is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Downtown L.A.

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