Award-winning actor Francis Jue returns home to San Francisco to star as DHH in the Bay Area premiere of Soft Power, the play featuring a musical by David Henry Hwang (play and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music and additional lyrics), at San Francisco’s Curran (445 Geary Street) through July 8, 2018. A Center Theatre Group co-commission with The Public Theater, Soft Power had its world premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
Directed by Leigh Silverman (Violet) and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton (Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812), Soft Power rewinds our recent political history and plays it back, a century later, through the Chinese lens of a future, beloved East-meets-West musical. In the musical, a Chinese executive (Conrad Ricamora) who is visiting America finds himself falling in love with a good-hearted U.S. leader (Alyse Alan Louis) as the power balance between their two countries shifts following the 2016 election.
The cast of Soft Power features Billy Bustamante (Miss Saigon), Kara Guy, Jon Hoche (War Horse tour), Kendyl Ito (Matilda tour), Francis Jue (M. Butterfly), Austin Ku (Chinglish tour), Raymond J. Lee (Groundhog Day), Alyse Alan Louis (Amélie), Jaygee Macapugay (School of Rock), Daniel May (Thoroughly Modern Millie tour), Paul HeeSang Miller (Miss Saigon), Kristen Faith Oei (M. Butterfly), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Amélie), Geena Quintos (Miss Saigon), Conrad Ricamora (The King and I, “How to Get Away with Murder”), Trevor Salter (Here Lies Love) and Emily Stillings (The King and I).
I chatted with Francis the day before he flew to SF for the run of Soft Power at the Curran.
Lia: How would you describe Soft Power?
Francis: Soft Power defies genre. It’s a comedy, it’s a romantic drama, it’s a political thriller, and it’s a play that gets overtaken by a musical. It is sometimes satirical, it’s hysterically funny, and then other times it is deadly in earnest. It’s a love story and it’s also a play of ideas. It never stops evolving and changing.
It forces us onstage and those in the audience to keep re-examining how we choose to look at ourselves and the world. We keep having to answer the questions, Who are we? What story are we telling? Why are we telling the story this way? That’s really eternal. That’s what the country has done since its inception, since the Bill of Rights. Look at how the country is evolving just in the last couple of years. What it means to be American seems to keep being redefined in profound ways daily.
Francis: I had an amazing time in LA with CTG’s world premiere of Soft Power in the Ahmanson Theater. Audiences were really enthusiastic, and the show gave us back so much. Also, the collaboration with the creative team has been really inspiring.
Lia: Who do you play?
Francis: When Leigh first asked me if I would consider playing David Henry Hwang in Soft Power, my first question was, “Do I get a wig?” I think I went to a ridiculous question first because it truly is an intimidating prospect, playing someone that I know, that I’ve met, that I’ve worked with and who I admire so much. I literally idolize this man, for his intellect, for his generosity, for his compassion, for his ability to articulate feelings and ideas.
Throughout this process, I’ve wondered if I had the capacity to portray all of those things. This has been an unusually stressful process for me because I do admire him so much. No one ever asked me to imitate him, to do anything but play this character as written, just like any other play. I’m so grateful that I get to play someone who is so complicated, who has such imagination and ego and righteousness, who wakes up to some hard realities.
For a long time, I felt like I was expressing David’s id, his inner child that he doesn’t allow himself to express in everyday life. That really appealed to me, that I could express those impulsive, often censored thoughts and feelings. It took me a while to figure out that although the play may start that way, by the end, I am talking about really personal, painful and hopeful things. I realized that the stuff that David talks about in the play didn’t just happen to him, it happened to his family as well. It didn’t just happen to his family, it happened to our community – our theater community, our Asian American community. It didn’t just happened to our community, it happened to America. It is happening to America. DHH awakens to this in the play as well.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am and what an awesome responsibility it is to be trusted by David and Jeanine and Leigh and Sam to do what I am doing in this play. It makes me feel better than I am, and braver. And I think audiences feel braver by the end of the play as well. They respond with so much affection, it’s sort of a rallying cry for coming together – what theater is all about, what America is supposed to be about.
Lia: How long have you been involved with Soft Power?
Francis: I was asked late in 2016 by director Leigh Silverman if I would attach myself to a project written by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori. I asked, “What is it?” And she said she didn’t know – there was nothing written yet! I said, “Well, I would love to because it’s you guys, but I’ve already agreed to do all these other things.” I gave her my itinerary for the next year, and she said they’d work around it.
I did a number of readings throughout 2017, in between other shows. CTG told me they had 13 different development work sessions over the course of the last two years. It changed a lot during that time. David started working on this before the 2016 election, before he was stabbed, before many of the current events that are happening right now. As these events happened in his life and our country’s life, I think this show began to find its focus, its reason for being. For David to speak this personally is astounding to me and brave. It scares me every night, and I’m loving it.
Lia: How has the show changed from 1st preview to opening night?
Francis: We got as many as 20-25 new pages every day during previews. There were new numbers added. There were internal cuts. The monologues I do in the show changed ’til the very end, right before opening. This creative team was going to use the time they had to make sure the show really said what they mean. And this company pulled up their big boy and big girl pants and did what professional actors and stage managers do so well, integrating changes really quickly. We learned a lot from doing the show and from our audiences in LA.
Lia: How many times have you worked with David and Leigh?
Francis: With David on full productions – M. Butterfly, Kung Fu, Yellow Face, and Soft Power.
With Leigh – Yellow Face, Coraline, Kung Fu, Wild Goose Dreams, Soft Power.