David Henry Hwang’s new musical (coyly called “a play with a musical”) Soft Power, featuring a score by Jeanine Tesori, is a political burlesque for the Trump era that ends with a earnest plea for democracy. It features a character named David Henry Hwang (played by Francis Jue), described as “the best Chinese-American playwright” there is. “I hear there’s not that many,” another character comments. This is Xiu Xing (Conrad Ricamora) a Chinese television executive who has hired Hwang to develop a television series set in Shanghai but meant for the worldwide market, especially the U.S. After some back and forth about eliminating anything from Hwang’s script that might make China look bad, no matter how innocuous to American ears and eyes, Hwang invites Xing and his mistress, a young American actress named Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis), to a fundraiser performance of The King and I that Hillary Clinton will be attending. While waiting in line to see Hillary, Xing excuses himself, and Zoe shares some tiresome ideas with Hwang about musicals as a potent “delivery system” for a nation’s culture even though the medium may be sentimental and the culture it shares highly questionable. Xing returns and relates how a well-connected friend slipped him to the front of the line where he and Hillary had a moment, claiming that she said to him, “We could learn a lot from China.” Cut to election night, where Xing cannot understand how Hillary could have lost due to the mysterious workings of the Electoral College. Hwang walks home alone, stunned like the rest of the nation, when he is stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant.
As he blacks out, he has a dream. It’s 50 years in the future and China now leads the world in both hard (military and economic) power and soft (cultural) power. Chinese television is broadcasting a beloved classic of that quintessentially Chinese art form, the musical. (“Cultural appropriation” has erased the culture of its original perpetrators.) It turns out to be a skewed retelling of the story we’ve already seen; time has scrambled what actually happened, and Xing’s mistress this time around is Hillary Clinton, also played by Louis.
This musical-within-a-play is a comic nightmare version of America where guns, violence, and white (thus, inauthentic) hip-hop abound (the Asian American ensemble dons blond wigs to portray white people; Louis is the only white member of the cast). Hwang uses this conceit to illustrate how the two countries get each other wrong, but he’s also scoring obvious points about the sorry state of America in the Trump age (though Trump’s name is never mentioned in the show). A sample song title: “Good Guy with a Gun.” Some of the gags are funny, but nothing adds up to anything. It’s like an argument against America told in those misspelled and poorly sourced political memes that are so prevalent on Facebook.
In the program notes, director Leigh Silverman states, “[W]e wanted to make a show that was rich with emotion, but not with sentiment or melodrama.” She clearly means sentimentality, which is false or manipulated sentiment (“sentiment” is a synonym for emotion), but this inadvertently points out that the show’s creators repeatedly confuse sentimentality with sentiment. (And they’re not too clear on melodrama either: Hwang was the victim of a stabbing attack in real life but it didn’t happen on the night Clinton lost. The perpetrator and the motive were never discovered, but the play’s time-shift and musings from the Hwang character lead us to believe that it was anti-immigrant violence.)
The dream version of David Henry Hwang and Xing tell us that “face” (as in “saving face,” but with more of an emphasis on doing so through living up to one’s responsibilities) is important for the Chinese, while “heart” is what’s important for Americans, and this superficial bifurcation is treated as something revelatory as the dream Hwang sobs out in pain, blood oozing from his neck, that because of his dual heritage, he is subject to both heart and face. (Aren’t we all?)
What is supposed to convince us that America is worth saving is the eleven o’clock number where the dream Hillary belts about how important democracy is while also singing “It’s all a big show.” Well, which is it? (Musically, the song evokes “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and I wish I could believe Tesori is purposefully writing a pale—pun intended—imitation of that classic, but since Tesori’s work almost always sounds to me like pallid imitations of better songs, I’m doubtful.) At play’s end when the non-dream Hwang sings out in agony how great America’s ideals are, even if the country itself is a disaster, what we’re presented with is sentimentality, since there’s been no real evidence of those ideals, or even discussion, other than a mediocre, overly emotional song. (Jue, who’s been terrific in other performances I’ve seen, baldly overacts here, but I’m certain Silverman directed him to do so.)
Tesori utilizes a 23-piece orchestra for this production, but she has no idea what to do with it. None of her songs requires lushness on that scale, and Kai Harada’s sound design makes it so that the strings often sound synthesized. Conrad Ricamora is a highly charismatic performer, and Alyse Alan Louis is clearly talented, but her Zoe is a cliché of the pompous young artist sneering at everything that’s come before, and her Hillary is sketch comedy where the sketch goes on too long.
It’s a show with lots of words (which it confuses with ideas), but little logic, and the different levels—the play, the dream, the Chinese musical, the television broadcast of the musical—are used as distancing techniques—so distancing that ultimately, we can’t take anything seriously. (All these layers provide plausible deniability for Hwang, who gets to say, no, it’s not me saying this particular thing, it’s the Chinese, or it’s a dream, or… or….) And would a show considered a classic of Chinese culture end with a plea for democracy? Nothing is thought out in this piece, nothing resonates, nothing has any meaning. Soft Power ends with no message or theme or idea at all other than David Henry Hwang is pro-democracy. Good to know.
Despite the ending, most of the play is a poison pen letter to America, and, I would argue, to the American musical as well. The eye-rolling discussion about musicals between Zoe and Hwang avers that musicals are successful due to their sentimentality and campiness, even as they’re communicating dangerous “white savior,” culturally imperialistic myths, as in The King and I (which the program informs us is playwright Hwang’s favorite musical). All of the musical numbers in Soft Power are jokey, backed by choreographer Sam Pinkleton’s (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Amélie) lampoons of Broadway dancing. For Hwang, musicals are something to be made fun of, not a vehicle for communicating fun, let alone serious emotion. Broadway singing and dancing can only achieve sentimentality, so he, as the creator of this particular piece, maintains an ironic remoteness from the work to combat the sap. (As an example of the ridiculousness of American musicals, a character points to Cats. Cats is a British musical, not American. A small point, but telling.) He doesn’t believe in the form, either as comedy or drama, and we can’t believe in his use of it. Soft Power has no power at all.
Soft Power plays at the Curran theatre in San Francisco through July 8. For more information go to https://sfcurran.com/shows/soft-power/.