- Soft Power: (Auto)ethnography, Racial Affect, and Dramaturgical Critique
Soft Power, a spectacular, genre-bending "play with a musical," opened on May 16, 2018, at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, as the culmination of Center Theatre Group's fiftieth anniversary season. A co-production with LA's East West Players, the longest continuously running theater of color in the United States, and San Francisco's Curran Theater, Soft Powermoved to the Curran on June 20, 2018, for a three-week run and will move to New York in the fall of 2019. The creative team includes David Henry Hwang, the premier Asian American dramatist (book and lyrics), Jeanine Tesori, the composer of celebrated musicals including Fun Homeand Caroline, or Change, the director Leigh Silverman (long-time collaborator with Hwang), and the choreographer Sam Pinkleton. Over-the-top staging, dazzling acting, singing, and dancing from a majority Asian American cast, sumptuous music by the twenty-two-piece orchestra, and witty metatheatricality that nonetheless goes straight to the heart are on full display in Soft Power.
Soft Powertakes as a point of departure Joseph Nye's concept of geopolitical power that exceeds military force or economic dominance. Soft power is the cultural and ideological influence circulated through cultural products such as film, television, sports, music, and theater, constituting a crucial register of global hegemony. Nye offers a highly gendered and sexualized definition: "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. … Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive." 1The play/musical Soft Poweruses the registers of song, dance, and the transnational, interracial romance between the candidate Hillary Clinton and the Chinese film executive Xue Xing to perform the "seductiveness" of soft power. Hwang's play/musical asks, what would happen if mainstream [End Page 265]America's worst nightmare were realized, and China became the preeminent global superpower after the decline of the US nation-state in the wake of the 2016 election? We see the US from "another point of view," as Xue convinces US politicians to lay down their guns and to join the community of nations, a vision he calls the New Silk Road.
The majority Asian American cast vividly challenges the whiteness of mainstream theater. We are still in a moment when Asian Americans onstage or backstage are too few. 2Of all minoritarian theater actors, Asian Americans experienced the sharpest decline in representation from the previous season on New York City stages, accounting for only 4 percent of the 35 percent of roles played by African American, Latinx, Middle Eastern / North African (MENA), American Indian, and disabled performers. 3Conrad Ricamora (Oliver, the gay Asian American hacker from How to Get Away with Murder, Lun Tha in the 2015 revival of The King and I, and Ninoy Aquino in David Byrne's musical Here Lies Love) is Xue; Alyse Alan Louis (the only white cast member) plays Hillary; Francis Jue, veteran of many of Hwang's productions, performs the eponymous role of DHH, stand-in for the playwright. An ensemble of young, talented Asian American singers/dancers/actors embody multiple roles: donning blond wigs, they become senators, campaign staff, sketchy con artists on Hollywood Boulevard, thus turning the tables on yellowface performance. This was one of Soft Power's greatest pleasures. When has theater, especially mainstream musical theater, seen whiteness so sharply satirized?
I have written of what I call racial affect, which enlivens some and leaches life energy from others. 4Too often, minoritarian subjects who attend performances of "high culture" are subjected to what I call "affective violence," when our roundedness and complexity are flattened through stereotype, marginalization, erasure. In stark contrast, for me and my companions, Soft Powerwas among the rare, life-giving theatrical experiences that theater lovers crave. Inspiring a sense of liveliness and uplift assumes a particular political urgency in...