So, a Chinese producer, a Tony-winning playwright, and Hillary Clinton all walk into a McDonald’s. …
What results is “Soft Power,” written by David Henry Hwang, which follows Hwang in and out of reality as he grapples with American and Chinese identities in the wake of the 2016 election. The bulk of the performance takes place inside of a fantasy of David Henry Hwang, played by Francis Jue, as he begins to bleed out from a stab wound. The attack in “Soft Power,” based on a real-life attack on Hwang, spurs Hwang to imagine the first American-Chinese musical performed in a world in which China has become the undisputed most powerful nation in the world.
The piece begins with Hwang pitching a TV show to Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), a producer for Chinese television who is looking to have Hwang write a show for his station. The different cultures of the two men prevent them from seeing eye to eye on a number of issues and before the show reaches production, Hwang is stabbed in the neck in what is believed to be a hate crime.
In its simplest terms, the show is a reimagination of “The King and I” and likeminded fish-out-of-water, East-meets-West American stories. It carries with it all the exaggerated accents, imprecise representation of culture and general tone-deafness that are touchstones of this genre of narrative. But in this particular reimagination, it is the Americans who get the shorter end of the stick. The musical dream sequence begins with Xue Xing’s daughter telling her father she is scared for him to leave to America before he ultimately departs to “Hollywood Airport” from which he is able to see the Statue of Liberty. This travel is punctuated by a hip-hop number performed by Asian actors in blonde wigs and velour tracksuits emphasizing the danger of America with critiques of American capitalism and American gun laws sprinkled throughout. The musical follows the romance of Xue Xing and Hillary Clinton, played by Alyse Alan Louis, as the two add nuance to their understanding of political systems through conversations about the values of American democracy and Chinese communism.
While the term “derivative” is often used as an insult, the derivative nature of the music in “Soft Power” shows a great understanding and appreciation of American musical patterns and conventions. Many of the songs in “Soft Power” have a musical parallel in musical theater’s past — not just alluding to “The King and I” but also mimicking power ballads from “Dreamgirls” and old-timey numbers from classics such as “The Music Man.”
Throughout its sharp critique of American musicals and the culture from which they are made, “Soft Power” still manages to play like a love letter to all it is critiquing. It follows in the footsteps of similar plays critiquing classic American theatrical works, such as “An Octoroon” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. This new genre of musical comes on the heels of previously marginalized voices becoming vocal in theatrical spaces to critique the “classic” works that perpetuated their marginalization. What results is a piece that demands the audience look at themselves just as much as at the show itself.
Beyond being just an exploration of American and Chinese identities, “Soft Power” is an exploration of theater as a genre. Self-described as a “play with a musical,” “Soft Power” deconstructs the American musical and the patterns that limit it as a medium, such as one-dimensional characters and endless narrow-minded tropes.
The piece lies heavily in the shadow of the recent 2016 election and is far from shy about this fact, with one of the more grandiose musical numbers ending with the chorus singing “I’m with her” over and over again. But by tying itself too closely to the 2016 political climate, “Soft Power” dates itself a little too precisely. The play already feels a little antiquated because the world since the 2016 election has been one that has been spinning faster than anyone could have imagined. Like Hwang’s past work “Yellow Face,” “Soft Power” presents Hwang himself as a character in the narrative and as such is able to give the conflict nuance and a unique humanness. The character of Hwang makes mistakes and says the wrong thing. At times he visibly struggles with the new information and perspectives he is presented with throughout the play and how they fit into his own narrative about the way the world works.
While the musical within “Soft Power” serves as a glimpse into the possible future of the 22nd century, the play itself shows a glimpse into the future of political theater in the post-Trump era. It is clear that to Hwang, while turbulent and frightening, this future is one of immense capacity for good and one that must be fostered and believed in accordingly.