I was able to attend a soft-opening performance of Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theater as the +1 of a friend.
I’m not going to lie. I found Soft Power to be incredibly discomfiting. It was also funny and absurd, but what I remember the most is how it made me feel and think.
I ran a constant internal dialog. I felt alternately unpatriotic, annoyed at the rose-colored picture of Communist China, and amused at the depiction of America as a clumsy, violent buffoon.
I have never had to think so hard and examine so closely my feelings and reactions as I did while watching Soft Power.
It’s exactly what our colonized eyes need to see.Soft Power is not an easy musical. It challenges. It confronts. It jabs you in your soft, fleshy bits. But it is so worth watching.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, (too late, I suppose), let me give a quick sum up.
Soft Power is a musical within a musical by David Henry Hwang and currently showing at The Curran Theater in San Francisco. Featuring an almost all Asian cast and set right before the 2016 Presidential Election, the story starts off with a fictionalized David Henry Hwang pitching a Chinese media executive, Xue Xing. Xing hates Hwang’s pitch and claims it is too American and completely unrealistic. In a last bid to win him over, Hwang invites Xing to a Hilary Clinton presidential dinner. Hwang doesn’t get to meet Clinton, but Xing somehow has a chance encounter with Clinton and becomes smitten.
Fast forward to a few days after the election, Hwang doesn’t get hired and while walking home one night, is attacked and ends up in the hospital. This is where Soft Power veers straight into surreal territory.
We are suddenly taken 50 years into the future where China is the largest world super power and we’re thrust into the middle of an anniversary celebration of a book (and later, musical) that Xing’s daughter writes about his affair with Clinton.
It’s weird and really hard to explain.
I had the hardest time reconciling the musical’s version of a young, lithe Hilary Clinton and what I know to be the reality of Hilary Clinton. But once I got past it (or successfully suspended my disbelief), I was confronted with the truth of of just how much I’ve bought the American Soft Power narrative hook, line, and sinker.
I had to think and examine my reactions closely.
Why was I so uncomfortable with how America was portrayed? Was this not how American media caricatures China and the Chinese (not to mention every single other country) all the time? Why were my eyes so confused by seeing Asians dressed up in “whiteface”? Is this not what is done to Asian American roles when the Asian part is white-washed and replaced with white actors?
People walked out of the theater – both partway through the first act as well as during intermission.
I was surprised.
But when I thought about it some more, I understood.
We are so used to the myth of American heroism and “rightness” in all our movies, shows, and stories that we do not notice it at all. We accept it as the correct backstory. America has been very successful at exporting our “soft power.” When these same traits are given to our “enemy” and our defining characteristics are laughable and primitive, we cannot help but be indignant.
Our eyes have been colonized. When we’re actively being colonized by a different power, it’s really, really, really disconcerting.
We fidget and squirm. We feel conflicted. And some of us leave the theater.I have never had to think so hard and examine so closely my feelings and reactions as I did while watching Soft Power. It's exactly what our colonized eyes need to see.
Soft Power is not an easy musical. It challenges. It confronts. It jabs you in your soft, fleshy bits. But it is so worth watching.
I highly recommend Soft Power to everyone. (It’s showing at The Curran Theater in San Francisco from June 20, 2018 through July 8, 2018 – so get your tickets before it goes away.)