New York City Theater
On the night of Nov. 29, 2015, playwright David Henry Hwang, author of the Tony-winning “M. Butterfly,” was stabbed in the neck while walking from a grocery store to his Brooklyn home. What seemed to be “a random act of violence that happens all the time” might possibly have been a hate crime (Hwang is Asian-American). Managing, somehow, to get to a nearby hospital, he learned his vertebral artery had been severed, a near-fatal wound eventually repaired in an hours-long operation.
Out of that horrific experience (the perpetrator was never found), Hwang has fashioned a self-described “play with a musical” titled “Soft Power” that comments on democracy, Hillary Clinton, China-U.S. relations, culture clashes, income inequality and the intersections between individuals and society. Further, it’s a mash-up of “The King and I” and a fictional Chinese concoction called “Stick by Your Mistake,” a hymn to marital fidelity even in the face of marital adversity. That’s a lot and, if the result is more complicated than complex, at least it makes for a heartfelt evening.
Hwang pushes our noses into stereotypes to make us face not only prejudices but realities. When our hero, the Chinese Xuē Xíng, arrives in the U.S., he’s greeted by a gaggle of gun-toting blondes. When the Hillary character eats, it’s typical American fare: pizza and ice cream. At the end of Act One, a “cry for America” is backed up by baseball bats, an inversion of the country’s favorite sport. The restaurant touted as most America’s most famous is McDonald’s.
Meanwhile, Hwang and his brilliant collaborator, composer/lyricist Jeanine Tesori, contrive a dystopian show whose central premise is the romance between a defeated Hillary and an optimistic Xuē Xíng. (China has become the world’s dominant nation.) As cheerfully directed by Leigh Silverman, the splendid cast is topped by several outstanding performances: Conrad Ricamora as Xuē Xíng, Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary, Francis Jue as Hwang.
“Soft Power” is not a feel-good show, although it’s wrapped in a sometimes giddy package. But it is a warning about how the tension between freedom and dictatorship can result in the triumph of the latter over the former. Changing the way people think before it’s too late is the real challenge. “Good fortune will follow – if we somehow survive.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 12, 2019