Soft Power, the new musical by David Henry Hwang, is about sixteen different shows stuffed into one, so bear with me here. It begins with the playwright himself (Francis Jue), who is approached by Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora), the President for North America of Dragon Entertainment Group, to adapt the Chinese comedy Jiāng Cuò Jiù Cuò. The title translates to Stick with Your Mistake, and the movie depicts a married couple who decide to remain together despite their mutual unhappiness. Hwang, baffled to be approached in the first place, insists that the couple split up. The disagreement is staged as a clash of cultures, with Xūe’s collective values up against Hwang’s individualistic ones.
But that’s only the first twenty minutes or so—which, incidentally, does not feature any music. Hwang then loops in his real-life stabbing, which triggers an elongated dream sequence. This is the musical, a King and I but, as Hwang says, “from China’s point of view.” Cue Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis), who finds both a friend and advisor in Xūe.
The suggestion that “China” has a singular point of view epitomizes, at least thematically, the issues with Soft Power. Hwang, whose work in the ‘eighties was exhilarating, has failed to evolve as an artist and thinker. He has stuck with an outdated East-vs-West paradigm, and as a result his reversal on Rogers and Hammerstein seems less subversive and more indebted to colonial narratives. The first lines of the first song, “Yes, I am dutiful, / I am Chinese,” are clearly satirical. But Soft Power does not stray too far from this sort of totalizing position.
Furthermore, the sheer volume of tonal shifts soon becomes disorienting. In addition to the metafictional games and the King and I rewrite, the second act opens with a panel set fifty years in a future where China dominates both economically and culturally. Chinese academics and artists speak in a reverse Orientalism, crediting Chinese artists for the genre of the Broadway musical while dismissing American art as the work of “native craftspeople.” It’s good for a laugh or two, but in context it is one in a series of ideas that seems to get thrown into Soft Power without consideration of the show as a whole. There’s enough here to supply Hwang with plays and musicals for decades to come—but the material needs to be sifted, structured, cohered. As it is, it’s a damn mess.
Soft Power runs through November 17th at the Newman Theater. 425 Lafayette Street New York, NY. 2 hours 15 minutes. One intermission.