‘Soft Power’: A Powerfully Acted but Underwhelming Spectacle

Actors in a scene of David Henry Hwang's latest production, "Soft Power".

By Guest Contributor: Edward Hong (@CinnabonMonster)

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.

Soft Power rewinds our recent political history and plays it back through a Chinese lens: a future, beloved East-meets-West musical. A Chinese executive visiting America falls in love with a good-hearted US leader—Hillary Clinton—as the power balance between their two countries shift following the 2016 election. As original as it is topical, Soft Power overflows with the romance, laughter, and cultural confusions of the Golden Age of Broadway. Hwang and Tesori have created one of the most eagerly anticipated new works of the year. Already hailed by many in the Asian American community as well as others (aka white people), Soft Power is praised as a stirring, powerful work relevant to current events.

With that in mind, I was ready.

About two-and-a-half hours later, I was left severely underwhelmed. This is going be a tough review to write: I have some rather critical things to say about this production and the playwright, both from a general audience perspective, as well as an Asian American.

* * *

I’ll start with the positives first.

The music and the singing were absolutely top notch. Major kudos must be given to the leads Francis Jue (as DHH), Conrad Ricamora (as Xue Xing), Alyse Alan Louis (as Zoe/Hillary), and the rest of the fine cast for knocking it out of the park with their singing talent. The orchestrations by Danny Troob and the scenery design by David Zinn were also fantastic. In terms of acting, the entire cast gave a superbly committed performance (despite two snags that bothered me, which I’ll get into later).

And that’s unfortunately about it because I’m about to bring on the pain train. And lots of spoilers. You have been warned.

* * *

Soft Power starts off extremely slow as we are introduced to two of our leads: DHH and Xue Xing, at Xing’s executive office. We are told that Xing is a Chinese executive, but I had a hard time suspending reality because Conrad Ricamora played Xing with an accent that was not Chinese, at all.

Meanwhile Jue, as fantastic an actor as he is, had a strange habit of bending his back forward every time he needed to emphasize his point. This near-constant tick came off as extremely theatrical and rather distracting.

I’m familiar with Hwang’s earlier play, Yellow Face, and in light of that, I can’t help but notice that Hwang likes to insert himself into his plays. Is this a necessary plot device (it certainly worked in the semi-autobiographical Yellow Face) or is is descending into gimmicky vanity (as it seems with Soft Power)?

Unlike Yellow Face, Soft Power cannot claim to be autobiographical. Within the play’s early scenes, clunky exposition is used to introduce Xing’s girlfriend, Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis) — the first of several loving homages to Hillary Clinton. Following discussion of how the characters had recently watched a performance of The King and I (and some other narrative exposition), we are led into a Wayne’s World-esque dream sequence — one that consumes a significant portion of the rest of the musical.

Soft Power is basically a subversion of The King and I. Instead of a white governess going to a foreign exotic land to fall in love with a Siamese King, Soft Power offers the story of a Chinese executive falling in love with a Hillary Clinton pastiche in a depraved America, transformed by the current president into a dystopian world similar to that seen in Back to the Future, Part II. (Some might argue that this is already happening in our current reality.)

In the fantastic dreamscape of Soft Power, Hillary Clinton is a young, attractive political candidate whom Xing instantly falls in love with. At first I found the use of a Clinton pastiche to be amusing, but Hwang’s ham-fisted and fawning treatment of the character quickly became distracting and I wonder if it would have been better to not rely on such a well known figure. That being said, if you’re a huge Hillary Clinton fan, you’ll get a kick out of her belting out amazing tunes and dancing her butt off. A certain suspension of disbelief must be attained not only for her but for all of Soft Power as their characters embark on a wacky adventure to convince America to drop their gun-obsessive culture. These scenes have a music and feel of Rodger & Hammerstein, with an ensemble cast that changes hat as they perform multiple characters.

Subtle, this is not. And, perhaps that is the point. The audience at my showing seemed starkly divided — one was either all-in, or one was standing to the side shaking one’s head in skeptical disbelief. I was caught somewhere in the middle. In the end, I was underwhelmed. I am not a fan of stories that use giant dream sequences as a plot device. That’s a strategy that makes the whole spectacle feel pointless, not worthy of my time as an audience member to even watch it.

As an Asian American familiar with most of Hwang’s work, it was only in watching Soft Power that I realized how much Hwang relies on explorations of Asian American identity as the central theme to his writings. In Soft Power, this exploration lacks grace and sophistication. Instead, DHH reflects upon his identity as a Chinese American with as much subtlety as a tweet written in all-caps. At one point, DHH’s character belts out in song: “I am Chinese; I am American!” Later, the musical concludes with a monologue by DHH about what it means to be Chinese American, along with his renewed support for democratic power. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with a playwright still returning the well of Asian American identity exploration in his work, but as an Asian American I wonder when we can move on from such overt treatments of the topic. I have seen far too many bad Asian American films and plays who can’t seem to escape being about being Asian American. Then again, the theater-going public — and especially whites and East Asians — can’t seem to get enough of this same racial coming-of-age story.

Nonetheless, Soft Power feels like yet another Asian American work written for white people. Like so many other works, Soft Power throws jokes at white people’s expense knowing that white audiences will laugh along with the knowledge that such jokes cause no harm. Meanwhile, the depiction of Asian American identity feels as if it will appeal to non-Asian audiences seeking a deliberately brief, delightfully funny, and racially comfortable foray into Asian Americana. White audiences are invited to laugh, but they are not invited to feel genuinely uncomfortable in their whiteness. And that, ultimately, is a shortcoming in our current slate of Asian American theatrical works.

* * *

I realize that I am coming off extremely critical of Soft Power, and of Hwang himself. I offer these criticisms with the reminder that we can simultaneously admire those pioneering artists and icons whom we look up to, while we apply a critical eye to the work that they do. To be blindly supportive does no one any good.

Many of us in the Asian American community are afraid to criticize our beloved works –I’m looking at you, rabid Crazy Rich Asians bandwagon —  because we know that Asian American representation is so few and far between. There are so few of us empowered to put stuff about and by Asian Americans out there. That does not mean we can or should stop holding our art to the highest of standards.

Despite the harsh words of this review, I did enjoy Soft Power. The music was excellent. The singing was heavenly. And the actors did a tremendous job putting their heart and talent for all to see. But, Soft Power is not the hard-punching, critical look of America that I was promised it would be by my peers in the Asian American theater community.

I’m aware that I’m in the minority in this opinion of Soft Power. The majority of Asian American celebrities (as well as many white theatre reviewers) who have seen this musical are gushing about it non-stop.

I found Soft Power to be a light and fluffy production, pretty much like all the Rodger & Hammerstein musicals that Soft Power takes its inspiration from. Some might argue that Soft Power is intended as a subversive take on that genre, similar to Hwang’s M. Butterfly. But, for me personally, that interpretation still doesn’t add anything new. Soft Power may be eye-opening to white audience members, but the constant hammering of the Asian American identity issue is something that Asian Americans have seen over-and-over again.

I continue to be a fan of Hwang’s work; but I am now starting to wonder if he can break away from the type of storytelling that made him famous  almost forty years ago.

Edward Hong

Edward Hong is a Cinnabon-obsessed actor who likes to talk about race and movies a lot. He is the proud father of three cat kids, and he also writes for The Nerds Of Color. He can be found on Twitter at @CinnabonMonster.

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