One of the many things that thrilled me about A Strange Loop — a show I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first saw it in June— was the way it used autobiography and metanarrative to reclaim a space traditionally dominated by straight white men. The show is not Michael R. Jackson’s life story, but his experience of writing a musical about a black gay man writing a musical about a black gay man clearly found its way into the text. It felt radical to see such an inward-facing (and outward-facing!), endlessly layered exploration of creativity and self from Jackson’s unapologetically black, queer perspective, given theater’s long history of navel-gazing white men. There have been plenty of shows about the process of writing a musical, but A Strange Loop never felt remotely like anything else I’d ever seen, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.
I say that because I’m about to compare A Strange Loop to another show, and I want to be clear that both of these musicals are completely distinct and essential in their own ways — but yes, the comparison is there. Soft Power, which is now running at the Public, has an entirely different and powerfully relevant voice, but it also uses autobiography and metanarrative and, indeed, a plot about writing a musical as a reclamation of space. Soft Power is not only an answer to the lack of Asian and Asian-American representation in theater, but also a fascinating subversion (and unflinching indictment) of the kinds of stories that have been told. Just as A Strange Loop had its targets when it came to the black stories deemed acceptable and profitable by older white producers, Soft Power reckons with a similarly fraught history — in this case, East-West musicals dominated by white savior narratives: shows like The King and I and Miss Saigon, the latter of which Soft Power’s writer, David Henry Hwang, has his own long history with.
Hwang isn’t only the book writer and lyricist of Soft Power (Jeanine Tesori composed the score and wrote additional lyrics) — he’s also one of the main characters. Played by Francis Jue, DHH (as he’s referred to in the Playbill) has been tasked with writing a blockbuster Chinese musical, the first of its kind, by wealthy producer Xuē Xíng (Conrad Ricamora). As Trump is elected and DHH is brutally stabbed in what may be a hate crime — Hwang’s real-life stabbing remains unsolved — Soft Power descends into fever dream chaos. The musical-within-a-play is a surrealist inversion of The King and I, with Xuē Xíng becoming Anna to Hillary Clinton’s (Alyse Alan Louis) King of Siam. It’s a brilliant piece of satire that skewers American imperialism, both onstage (shows like Miss Saigon) and offstage (wars like the one that inspired Miss Saigon). There is real anger and urgency here, with a biting sense of humor that makes it somewhat easier to digest.
But as in A Strange Loop — again, these shows are so different, but too inadvertently locked in conversation to eschew the comparisons — there is a relentless undercurrent of tenderness and emotional honesty in Soft Power. It is, at times, broad and very funny, but it is also overwhelmingly moving, particularly as it reaches its climax. Hwang’s work turns out to be, among so many other things, a raw depiction of trauma, both personal (the inexplicable act of violence perpetrated against him) and collective (the slightly more explicable act of violence perpetrated against the country as a whole). There are moments when Soft Power feels like therapy, working to process the unthinkable, and yes, a random stabbing and the rising tide of fascism both feel impossible until they aren’t. How does Hwang move forward — how do any of us? I’m not sure there is one answer, but the show’s assemblage of faces and voices that have too often been marginalized feels like a defiant step in the right direction.
Photo via Craig Schwartz.