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Creating our Soft Power

David Henry Hwang Reflects on the 2019 Musical and Community at the Heart of the Show


L-R: Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante and Raymond J. Lee in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. Directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, “Soft Power” runs through June 10, 2018.

All Uses © 2018 Craig Schwartz

May marks the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which uplifts the contributions and history of Asian American communities within the United States. The month-long celebration was first observed during the first ten days of May but was extended to encapsulate the various markers in Asian American History. Japanese immigrants first came to the U.S. in May of 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which was completed by mostly Chinese immigrants, was on May 10th,1869. For these reasons, the month of May continues to bear importance to the Asian American community and uplifts their various contributions.

At the Mark Taper Forum, Center Theatre Group is preparing to present the world premiere of A Transparent Musical, which opens this May. In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, we are reflecting on another world premiere musical at Center Theatre Group, Soft Power by David Henry Hwang, which opened in May of 2018. We spoke with Hwang to discuss the process and creation of a new musical, the impact and heart of Soft Power, and the importance of Asian American stories in theatre.

In Soft Power, the character DHH dreams of a futuristic musical that tackles themes and messages that are of importance to him. How did you first come to the idea of Soft Power and what motivated you to tell that story?

HWANG: I saw Bart Sher's production of The King and I on Broadway. I'd always loved that show but became more aware of how an inconsequential historical figure had been elevated into a major cultural icon through the "soft power" of the American musical. This led me to want to create a reverse The King and I, where the "true" story of a minor Chinese character in America would be similarly elevated through the lens of a futuristic Chinese musical. I figured we would start by seeing the "real" story through a play, then mythologize it in the musical.

What was it like to build a “play with a musical” from the ground up? What were the most exciting aspects, and were there any challenges along the way?

HWANG: This was an extremely challenging process in many ways! Perhaps the two most consequential challenges came out of unexpected real-life events. One—The 2016 election. In my original conception, the Chinese character was going to become an advisor to President Hillary Clinton. We even did a reading of this early draft the morning of the 2016 election! The next morning, I remember calling director Leigh Silverman and saying, "I think this will be bad for the country, but it could be good for the show. Two—My stabbing. As I began writing the show and transitioning from the play to the musical, I found myself writing about my having been stabbed in the neck a couple of years prior. I thought, "This will never make it into the show," but it ended up becoming a pivotal plot device.

Throughout the show, we see DHH’s struggle and alienation for not being “Chinese” or “American” enough, but finds power in telling stories through both cultures. Why did you feel compelled to add this plot line to the show, and what do you hope audiences gain from this perspective?

HWANG: I've written both AAPI and transnational stories. In Soft Power, I wanted to be transparent about portraying a "Chinese story" through an AAPI lens. Since the musical is literally DHH's fever dream when he's stabbed, we're able to experience that dual perspective.

Since its premiere in 2019, there has been an increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and actions throughout the United States. Is there anything from your experience with Soft Power that you hope audiences will carry to challenge the rise in Asian hate?

HWANG: The spike in anti-Asian hate, which began during the pandemic, has made the stabbing of DHH in the show even more relevant and relatable. As I continue to reconceive Soft Power for its next iteration, I hope to utilize the fact that audiences are much less likely to believe, as some did in 2019, that anti-Asian racism doesn't exist. I hope audiences can understand how the soft power of dehumanizing narratives and stories makes more possible real-life hate and attacks. Representation is not just a matter of visibility—it can be literally a matter of life and death. Moreover, I hope AAPI audiences grasp that "model minority"-ism doesn't work; we are only accepted in America until we are not. Rather than accommodating racism and believing that proximity to whiteness will protect us, we must fight racism, uniting with other BIPOC communities and white allies who share our cause.

You carry a legacy of powerful and thought-provoking work that touches on both the Asian and Asian American experience. What draws you to tell these stories for the community with theatre as the medium?

HWANG: I don't know that an artist gets to choose their subject. I've been attracted to Asian and AAPI stories because they've helped me to understand myself, and my relationship to this country as well as the root culture of my parents. I'm attracted to theatre because I love the interaction between live performers and a live audience, in a space that is simultaneously naturalistic and metaphorical.

Do you feel that there are any challenges or obstacles the Asian American community faces in the theatre industry?

HWANG: Asian and AAPI stories are still largely excluded from commercial and Broadway theatre. Particularly over the past 3-5 years, theatre has fallen behind film and TV in this regard.

Is there anything the American theatre community must do to support our Asian American storytellers both onstage and off?

HWANG: See our shows! Support AAPI artists, through ticket purchases and donations! And if your kids want to pursue a career in the arts, celebrate and encourage them!

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