“Asian American performers never walk onto an empty stage.”
“That space,” professor of English and comparative literature Denise Cruz went on to say, still quoting from New York University associate professor Karen Shimakawa’s book, “National Abjection,” “is always already densely populated with phantasms of orientalness through and against which an Asian-American performer must struggle to be seen.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 3, Tony Award-winning playwright and associate professor in playwriting at Columbia’s School of the Arts David Henry Hwang spoke in Kent Hall about the creation of his musical “Soft Power,” with composition and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, BC ’83, which premiered at New York’s The Public Theatre in fall 2019. The event was sponsored by the department of East Asian languages and cultures.
Jean Howard, a professor in the department of English and comparative literature, and Ana Paulina Lee, a professor of Latin American and Iberian cultures each gave presentations alongside Cruz analyzing the failures of American democracy, the role of women in society, and the Asian-American struggle depicted in “Soft Power.”
The term “soft power” is a country’s ability to persuade other nations to do what it wants without using outright force. Hwang, in what he deems a “play with a musical,” explores “soft power,” Chinese-American relations, and American democracy through contrasting scenes of parody and sincerity.
“‘Soft Power,’” Lee said, “questions whether the social contract of American democracy and its promises of citizenship, national security, political representation by the people, and the rule of law are so stable after all.”
At the start of the play, a Chinese producer named Xue Xing attempts to hire David Henry Hwang, a successful playwright and fictional representation of Hwang, to adapt a popular Chinese movie into a musical. The plot of the movie, titled “Stick With Your Mistake,” suggests that it is more honorable to stay in an unhappy marriage than to seek personal freedom.
However, when Hwang is stabbed in the neck by a stranger, he envisions a musical fever dream in which Hillary Clinton panders for votes by doing a strip tease in a McDonalds. Taking place about 100 years in the future, this musical-style section inaccurately yet meticulously reveals how China leads the world after the United States collapses in the wake of the 2016 election.
“It’s very hard to write about the moment that you’re in,” Hwang said. “The only way that I could think of doing that is to pretend that I’m writing from the future so that the immediacy of the show and its relationship to current events would feel filtered through not only a future lens but also an incorrect lens.”
Hwang, best known for the Tony-winning “M. Butterfly” and “Yellow Face,” was stabbed outside his Brooklyn home in 2015. The incident inspired the stabbing in “Soft Power,” which acts as a fulcrum between the play and the musical comedy.
“Writing is about this tension between your conscious mind and your subconscious mind,” Hwang said. “And I just felt this strong impulse to write about my stabbing.”
Inspired by his struggles growing up as an Asian American in the United States, Hwang said that “Soft Power” explores America’s failure to uphold democracy by poking fun at the electoral college and an unnamed president who wins the 2016 election. Hwang also devised musical numbers reminiscent of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s classic musical “The King and I,” which Hwang views as colonialist and dated.
“I came to the understanding that I probably felt more oppressed as a kid by American popular culture than by any particular racist incident or microaggression,” Hwang said. “So, therefore, it’s not surprising that I spent most of my adult life sort of trying to access those levers of American Western culture … in order to put a different lens on the things that I felt oppressed by as a kid.”
Lee also discussed how “Soft Power” draws on the idea that a hyphenated American, such as a Chinese-American citizen, is not considered a true American in the context of a fragile and failing democracy. Lee described how Hwang’s play challenges the notion that immigrants must assimilate into the American idea of whiteness, instead championing personal happiness over conformity.
Howard also went on to discuss the role of race and gender dynamics in the play, centering on Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election. She then went to suggest that Clinton’s desperation for votes represents a generation of American women whose “heads are repeatedly smacked against glass ceilings no matter how hard they try and how competent they are.”
Cruz emphasized that the character of Hwang, as a playwright and as a person, consumes and produces narratives about Asia that he must constantly question.
“The play uses techniques of … defamiliarization,” Cruz said, “making strange what has become all too familiar, as a key device that challenges the audience to reconsider recognizable patterns, to think anew about songs we know by heart, to the political figures we think we recognize, or to the electoral college and the processes of democracy.”
Hwang then noted how “Soft Power” was a way for him to grapple with his questions about the relationship between the United States and China, especially in a polarizing time in history. He mentioned that he will continue to edit “Soft Power” and some of his other works as new answers to these questions come to light, even after the plays have been performed for many audiences.
“There’s a saying that plays are never finished; they’re just abandoned,” Hwang said. “I will keep rewriting until I need to stop.”