Ever since I wanted to be an actor in high school, I became immediately aware of Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang. To this day, Hwang is arguably the best known Asian-American playwright in the world. Hwang’s plays (most notably, F.O.B. and M. Butterfly) have pioneered the expression of the Asian American identity on stage for the world to see.
To say that Hwang was a playwright I looked up to as an Asian-American actor would be a huge understatement. This guy was everything to me.
Thus, it was a no-brainer that I would go watch his latest work, Soft Power, which premiered on May 3rd at the Ahmanson Theatre. Excitement, intrigue, and fascination all swirled into one, particularly since Soft Power was also a collaboration between Hwang and well-known composer, Jeanine Tesor (Fun Home).
So what’s Soft Power all about?
The following review contains several spoilers about the latest musical production Soft Power. Please read on with care.
Many of us are the second-generation children of immigrants who survived periods of instability such as the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Cultural Revolution. And yet, for some of us, the familial stories of that trauma are largely unknown – erased by violence or buried in silence by emotional and psychological trauma.
And so, even as our fingers trace the scars left upon our families, we feel an emotional distance from the periods of violence that reshaped the courses of our families’ history. We know the facts as one might read a description in a textbook. We ponder the blurred faces of people whose names we might (or might not) know memorialized in black-and-white snapshots by unseen photographers. We feel the aching silence of our parents and grandparents who speak volumes in what they do not — and what they cannot — say.
We wonder what we have gained by our not-knowing and our not-speaking; but also, what we may have lost.
This year marks the 70th year of the closing of the World War II incarceration camps (JACL’s “Power of Words”) that imprisoned thousands of Japanese American civilians under inhumane conditions and threat of violence. Yet, this shameful and racist episode of American history still receives scant attention in our history classrooms. The vast majority of Americans know that our government incarcerated Japanese American families behind barbed wire fences, but know precious little else about it.
Yet, Japanese American incarceration is of particular relevance given today’s political climate. The growing global presence of fundamentalist terrorists – who falsely justify their violence with appropriated references to the Islamic faith, yet who just last week took the lives of hundreds of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims in various parts of the world — has lead to intense Islamophobia. Our world once again stands at a precipice: we find ourselves once more ready to commit the unforgivable sin of failing to distinguish between our enemy’s heinous violence, and their race or faith. We again find ourselves in danger of persecuting our innocent neighbours as an expression of our grief-turned-unforgivably-racist-rage. Already, our politicians suggest with possible sincerity that we round up American Muslims and house them in camps – “for our own protection”.
“Allegiance” — a musical written by Jay Kuo and inspired by the experiences of former Tule Lake incarceree, famed Star Trek actor, and vocal Japanese American community advocate George Takei – opened this month on Broadway in New York City; it had previously opened in San Diego in 2012. “Allegiance” challenges us to learn about the camps not as artifacts of history, but through the lens of the lives torn asunder by them; and for this specific moment in the global War on Terror, this story seems particularly poignant and timely.