‘Soft Power:’ Rise of China, and flipping the yellowface trope


Playwright David Henry Hwang’s new show, “Soft Power,” sounds like it’s ripped straight from recent headlines.

The first part is a comedy set in LA during the 2016 presidential election. A local Chinese-American writer (named after Hwang) and a producer from China are trying to create a new TV series.

They go to an event for Hillary Clinton, where producer Xue Xing has a romantic incident with the presidential contender.

Later, Hwang gets stabbed in the neck and has a fever dream.

The audience watches that dream in the second part of “Soft Power.” The dream mythologizes the Xing-Clinton incident, and it becomes the source material for a beloved musical in China in the 22nd Century. “From a Chinese point of view, it celebrates how China steps in to lead the world when America collapses after the 2016 election,” playwright David Henry Hwang tells Press Play.

Hwang explains that the Chinese narrative on democracy is that it’s chaotic and dysfunctional, and the government should instead be a meritocracy. “So in some sense, this musical that the Chinese supposedly have created also reinforces that narrative and that point of view — within a beautiful east-west romance.”

The playwright hopes his show will stimulate discussions: “How do we look at democracy now, and what about the Chinese point of view of meritocracy versus the sort of tyranny of the ballot box? … Although I would say that ultimately, at least my character ends up feeling that he can’t really turn his back on democracy, and the Hillary Clinton character also.”

“Soft Power” is also a meditation on east-west shows like “The King and I,” where a white governess goes to Thailand and teaches the King of Siam how to rule his own country. Russian actor Yul Brynner plays the king.

Hwang had complicated emotions when watching the most recent revival of “The King and I” a few years ago. “There were things in it that felt inaccurate and wrong, but then it’s so beautifully done, that by the end of the show, I’m still in tears,” he says.

And whereas Hollywood has repeatedly cast white actors in Asian roles, Hwang does the opposite in “Soft Power.” Asian actors are playing white characters, wearing blonde wigs. “We are theoretically watching a musical in China, where you have Chinese actors therefore playing in what would be whiteface. I think I’m sort of trying to flip the yellowface trope on its head a bit,” he says.

You can watch “Soft Power” at the Ahmanson Theatre now through June 10.