Award-winning Broadway Vet Francis Jue Talks about SOFT POWER, KING OF THE YEES, WILD GOOSE DREAMS, “Madam Secretary” and Getting Married

Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang
Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang

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.

Sam Pinkleton, Jeanine Tesori, Francis Jue, Leigh Silverman, David Henry Hwang, Conrad Ricamora, Alyse Alan Louis. Photo by Lia Chang
Sam Pinkleton, Jeanine Tesori, Francis Jue, Leigh Silverman, David Henry Hwang, Conrad Ricamora, Alyse Alan Louis. Photo by Lia Chang

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.

Seated: Jeanine Tesori, Francis Jue, Kendyl Ito, Daniel May. Standing: Trevor Salter, Sam Pinkleton, Emily Stillings, Billy Bustamante, Kristen Faith Oei, Jon Hoche, Leigh Silverman, Austin Ku, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Alyse Alan Louis, Raymond J. Lee, Maria-Christina Oliveras, David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang
Seated: Jeanine Tesori, Francis Jue, Kendyl Ito, Daniel May. Standing: Trevor Salter, Sam Pinkleton, Emily Stillings, Billy Bustamante, Kristen Faith Oei, Jon Hoche, Leigh Silverman, Austin Ku, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora, Alyse Alan Louis, Raymond J. Lee, Maria-Christina Oliveras, David Henry Hwang. Photo by Lia Chang

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.

Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante and Raymond J. Lee. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz
Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante and Raymond J. Lee. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

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 Jue, Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante, Alyse Alan Louis (center), Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jon Hoche, Kristen Faith Oei, Daniel May and Kendyl Ito. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz
Francis Jue, Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante, Alyse Alan Louis (center), Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jon Hoche, Kristen Faith Oei, Daniel May and Kendyl Ito. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

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.

Leigh Silverman, cast member Francis Jue, creators Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang, cast members Austin Ku and Maria-Christina Oliveras, choreographer Sam Pinkleton and cast member Geena Quintos backstage after the opening night performance of the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori's "Soft Power" at Center Theatre Group. 📷: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging
Leigh Silverman, cast member Francis Jue, creators Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang, cast members Austin Ku and Maria-Christina Oliveras, choreographer Sam Pinkleton and cast member Geena Quintos backstage after the opening night performance of the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group. 📷: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

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.

David Henry Hwang as D.H.H. and Francis Jue as H.Y.H. in a scene from Yellow Face at WNYC’s The Greene Space in New York on May 7, 2012, courtesy New York Public Radio. © 2012 Lia Chang
David Henry Hwang as D.H.H. and Francis Jue as H.Y.H. in a scene from Yellow Face at WNYC’s The Greene Space in New York on May 7, 2012, courtesy New York Public Radio. © 2012 Lia Chang
Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang
Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang

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.

Sam Pinkleton, Jeanine Tesori, David Henry Hwang and Leigh Silverman. Photo by Lia Chang
Sam Pinkleton, Jeanine Tesori, David Henry Hwang and Leigh Silverman. Photo by Lia Chang

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.

Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz
Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

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.

Austin Ku, Daniel May, Maria Christina-Oliveras, Billy Bustamante, Paul HeeSang Miller, Alyse Alan Louis, Francis Jue and Kendyl Ito. Photo by Lia Chang
Austin Ku, Daniel May, Maria Christina-Oliveras, Billy Bustamante, Paul HeeSang Miller, Alyse Alan Louis, Francis Jue and Kendyl Ito. Photo by Lia Chang

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.

Francis Jue as Bruce Lee’s father, Hoi-Chuen in Signature Theatre's production of David Henry Hwang's Kung Fu. Photo by Joan Marcus
Francis Jue as Bruce Lee’s father, Hoi-Chuen in Signature Theatre’s production of David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu. Photo by Joan Marcus

With Leigh – Yellow Face, Coraline, Kung Fu, Wild Goose Dreams, Soft Power.

Francis Jue, Jayne Houdyshell, Elliot Villar and William Youmans in Coraline. (© Joan Marcus)
Francis Jue, Jayne Houdyshell, Elliot Villar and William Youmans in Coraline. (© Joan Marcus)

I’m just so grateful to be working with them.  I really feel like we’ve developed a trust and a short hand and a collaboration that uses all of me.  I adore them and I think they are brilliant.

What was it like to play David Henry Hwang’s father in Yellow Face?
Francis: I didn’t feel the same kind of pressure playing David’s father, because I’d never met him.  What he wrote was so crystal clear to me.  I identified with it immediately.  The only note I remember David giving me about his father was that he stood tall.  I had been exploring ways to signify age, stooping my shoulders a bit.  David’s one note told me everything that character was about – his gregariousness, his pride, his enthusiasm, his optimism, his faith.  David is so brilliant, that with that one note I could extrapolate the essence of the character, and the reason he was in the play at all.

 Hoon Lee and Francis Jue in Yellow Face at the Public Theatre. Photo by Michal Daniel
Hoon Lee and Francis Jue in Yellow Face at the Public Theater. Photo by Michal Daniel

The one note he had for my playing him in Soft Power was that he wanted me to use the same pen that he uses when he writes.  It’s a really nice pen!  It feels really good in my hand, and writes smoothly, making it easy to glide across the page.  It tells me a lot about his sense of style, how he presents himself to the world – and about how he creates from his sub-conscious, allowing his characters to speak to him.

Lia: What shows have you done in San Francisco?
Francis: I did Philip Gotanda’s After the War at ACT’s Geary Theater, David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy at the Magic Theatre, and Philip Gotanda’s Song for a Nisei Fisherman with the Asian American Theatre Company.  I’ve done lots of shows at TheatreWorks as well.  I grew up in San Francisco.  I went to Star of the Sea and Saint Ignatius.  Most of my family still lives in the Bay Area.  I am so looking forward to doing this particular show in San Francisco, and saying what we get to say in this show.  I am so looking forward to representing.

Lia: What is it like to be working in this company comprised of predominantly Asian American actors?
Francis: There is something really special about working with other Asian Americans in this business.  Partly it is because we have fewer opportunities to work at all.  In my experience any primarily Asian American company has really bonded.  We spend a lot of time together, not just at work, but also at play.

The cast. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz
The cast. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

This show in particular has really inspired this particular company to speak from our hearts.  We used to circle up during rehearsals and talk about what the show means and what it means to us in particular.  We don’t just get to talk about being Asian – we get to talk about being American.

There is something about working with your peers, and working on a story where everyone has something in common.  What kills me is that I look at this company of younger Asian American performers who are so much more skilled and so much more qualified than I was at their age, who have had wonderful opportunities, but not nearly the opportunities that they deserve.

Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang
Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang
From left, cast member Francis Jue and creator David Henry Hwang backstage after the opening night performance of the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group. 📷: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging
From left, cast member Francis Jue and creator David Henry Hwang backstage after the opening night performance of the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group. 📷: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Lia: What are the 3 most challenging aspects about doing this show for you?
Francis: First – It had been a long time since I had done a musical.  Somewhere along the way, I had convinced myself that I couldn’t sing.  It’s been very challenging to be in a room where people are writing new music and asking me to try stuff on.  I feel extremely vulnerable.

Second – For a long time I have wanted just to be a human being on stage, not a symbol or a representative of some exotic other.  Even though Soft Power is giving me this opportunity, this has been really hard for me.  Actually taking the stage and not talking about somebody else’s feeling, but my own, has been challenging.

Third – I turned down a lot of things to attach myself to this long-term project.  I usually say yes to almost anything, because I never believe I will ever work again.  So turning down other work to remain available for this was really difficult.  I hate saying no, I hate disappointing people.

But I have been given back so much more than I ever could have imagined.  Premiering this new show, and getting to work with my idols, has been a dream come true.

I dreamed about doing something like this when I was a little kid, but I never thought it would happen.  To have David Henry Hwang write something from his own heart that is so vulnerable and funny and challenging, and ask me to continue to work on it, has been the gift of a lifetime.

Lia: You have portrayed Minister Chen on “Madam Secretary” on CBS for several seasons now. 
Francis: “Madam Secretary” is such a great gig!  It’s smart and intelligent and funny.  There’s a lot of wish fulfillment – we wish we had people like Tea Leoni working in our government right now.  And I love playing Foreign Minister Chen because I don’t often get to play guys who actually have that much authority.  I’m so grateful that they’ve given me the opportunity to develop this character over multiple episodes over the last four seasons.  Stay tuned – Minister Chen may come back for season five!

In 2017, you appeared in the world premiere of Hansol Jung’s Wild Goose Dreams at La Jolla Playhouse. The play was nominated for three 2017 Craig Noel Awards including Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play for you, Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Sound Design.
Francis: 
When Leigh Silverman sent me the script of Wild Goose Dreams, I literally did not understand the words on the page.  It wasn’t until the first day of rehearsal at La Jolla Playhouse where I heard it aloud, that I began to understand this beautiful piece of work.  It’s a play that a lot of people identified with because it is about alienation, even though the internet connects us to just about anything and everything.

The cast of WILD GOOSE DREAMS. Photo by Jim Carmody
The cast of WILD GOOSE DREAMS. Photo by Jim Carmody

I have to give total credit to playwright Hansol Jung.  She was able to make all these disparate voices on the internet – pop-ups, spam, e-mail, instant messages – sound like a unified chorus, while telling this really beautiful story about a woman alienated from her father, from her country, from her own identity, as she tries to figure out her existence in South Korea.

Yunjin Kim and Francis Jue in La Jolla Playhouse's production of WILD GOOSE DREAMS by Hansol Jung. Photo by Jim Carmody
Yunjin Kim and Francis Jue in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of WILD GOOSE DREAMS by Hansol Jung. Photo by Jim Carmody

Hansol Jung’s WILD GOOSE DREAMS Nominated for Three 2017 Craig Noel Awards including Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play for Francis Jue, Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Sound Design 

Jennifer Lim, Joe Ngo, Daniel K. Isaac, Francis Jue, Lauren Yee, Tobias C. Wong, Jeena Yi and Ned Eisenberg. Photo by Lia Chang
Jennifer Lim, Joe Ngo, Daniel K. Isaac, Francis Jue, Lauren Yee, Tobias C. Wong, Jeena Yi and Ned Eisenberg. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: You played Larry Yee in Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees in Chicago and L.A. and were nominated for a a 2017 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Featured Performance in Play. Can you tell me how the play spoke to you?
Francis: In King of the Yees, Lauren Yee has written a hilarious and touching play, inspired by her relationship with her father and his relationship with Chinatown and Chinese Family Associations.  I felt like I was spending time with my own family while working on that play.  I love it so much.  And non-Asians identified with it so much, saying how it reminded them of their own father, or their relationship with their own daughter.  It would make audience members want to call their folks.  I can’t say enough about Lauren Yee and Josh Brody, who directed it with such a deft, sensitive hand.

Daniel Smith (Actor 1), Stephenie Soohyun Park (Lauren) and Francis Jue (Larry) in Lauren Yee’s KING OF THE YEES. Photo by Liz Lauren
Daniel Smith (Actor 1), Stephenie Soohyun Park (Lauren) and Francis Jue (Larry) in Lauren Yee’s KING OF THE YEES at The Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren
Randy Adams and Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang
Randy Adams and Francis Jue. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: Happy Pride Month. Congrats on your recent nuptials.  Why did you decide to wait 30 years?
Francis: Randy Adams and I have been together for 30 years.  We didn’t get engaged until marriage was legal all across the country.  For me personally, I didn’t want to get married and have it taken away.  I didn’t want to be married in one state and go to work in another state where I wasn’t married.  So we waited.  Once we were engaged, we couldn’t figure out how our should work.  We have so many friends in New York, his family is in Ohio, and my family is in California.  Trying to figure it out prevented us from getting married for a long time.  Finally, we got to the point where we decided in our heart of hearts that it would be okay to go to City Hall.  We didn’t tell anybody except the few friends who witnessed and took pictures.  We wanted to do it on our 30th anniversary, but that was the day of my first rehearsal for Soft Power AND the day that Randy was called for jury duty.  So we got married on the Friday before.

Francis Jue in SOFT POWER. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Francis Jue in SOFT POWER. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The Soft Power creative team includes scenic design by Tony Award winner David Zinn, costume design by Drama Desk Award winner Anita Yavich, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Tony Award nominee Kai Harada, orchestrations by Drama Desk Award winner and Tony Award nominee Danny Troob, dance arrangements by John Clancy, music supervision by Chris Fenwick, music direction by David O, hair and wig design by Tom Watson, make-up design by Angelina Avallone and casting by Heidi Griffiths, CSAand Kate Murray, CSA. The dramaturg is Oskar Eustis. The production stage manager is David Lurie-Perret.

The San Francisco native made his New York stage debut in Steven Sondheim and John Weidman’s Pacific Overtures in 1984, appeared on Broadway in Hwang’s M. Butterfly in 1988 and originated the role of Bun Foo in Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002). No stranger to accolades, he received San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Awards for his star turns in the TheatreWorks productions of Cabaret and RED; for his acting and choreography on Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures, and a DramaLogue Award playing Molina in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. He’s played the title roles in Amadeus and The King and I opposite Debby Boone, and has worked at the Public Theater in The Tragedy of Richard II, Chay Yew’s A Language of Their Own, King Lear, Timons of Athens, Pericles, Hamlet and The Winter’s TaleYellow Face (Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards, plus Drama Desk and Drama League nominations), In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) (ariZoni Award), Miss Saigon (Elliot Norton Award), Kiss of the Spider Woman (Drama-Logue Award), Cabaret (Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award), Falsettoland, Kung Fu, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Wild Goose Dreams, and Paper Dolls. He has appeared in the film Joyful Noise, and has had recurring roles on “Madam Secretary,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “The Good Wife.”

Tickets for SOFT POWER range in price from $29-$175 and are available by calling 415-358-1220 or visiting SFCURRAN.com/soft-power.

Francis Jue, At Home on the Stage
Billy Bustamante, Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito, Francis Jue, Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Alyse Alan Louis, Jaygee Macapugay, Daniel May, Paul HeeSang Miller, Kristen Faith Oei, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Geena Quintos, Conrad Ricamora,Trevor Salter and Emily Stillings Set for World Premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s SOFT POWER 

Click here  for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang, Photo by Garth Kravits
Lia Chang, Photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers,  musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.

All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2018 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at liachangpr@gmail.com

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