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‘Soft Power’ skewers American exceptionalism

Conrad Ricamora and Kendyl Ito in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. Directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. Photo by Craig Schwartz.


Alhambra , CA United States

In the opening scene of David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, a Chinese film producer named Xue Xing goes over his notes with a screenwriter, also named David Henry Hwang, over a romantic comedy pilot set in Shanghai. The producer objects to the values that this show promotes, talking about how, for example, Chinese audiences want to see movies about a couple who decide to stick it out through a bad marriage instead of breaking up to find true love. He also objects to the seemingly innocuous details, including the direction where a character walks through Fuxing Park, on a day with “good air quality,” because that implies that Shanghai has days where the air quality is not-so-good.

But that is the truth, Hwang tries to say. “Oh, the air quality in Shanghai is terrible,” Xue agrees. “But that’s not the point.” The point, he explains, is to spread China’s culture and values to the United States, in a positive and even idealized way. In other words, now that China is the world’s second largest economy, it wants soft power.

Hwang knows of that desire firsthand, having been invited to a lot of meetings with Chinese producers hoping he’d write a Broadway hit set in China. Americans have also viewed China’s attempts to flex its cultural influence with some anxiety. After raising objections to the villains in the Red Dawn remake as being Chinese, their ethnicity was changed to North Korean.

In Soft Power, Hwang grants this wish, with his stand-in in the play hallucinating a musical where Xue Xing arrives at “Hollywood Airport” in 2016 to spread China’s way of life to Americans, who live in a gun-loving crime-ridden version of the United States. He attends a campaign event for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at America’s finest restaurant, a McDonald’s naturally, and watches as she’s forced to dance for votes after she bores her audience with too much talk about numbers and policy. After she loses, Xue and Clinton fall in love, but they clash over whether democracy is worth-saving or if the United States should adopt China’s top-down way of doing things. The answer comes when Xue travels to the White House just as the new president is about to declare war on China and gets him to lay down his automatic weapons.

In criticizing China’s desire for soft power, Hwang also skewers the way that the United States has wielded its cultural and intellectual influence. Soft Power is directly critical of The King and I, where an English woman falls in love with the King of Siam, but most importantly tells him how to rule his country. While the America of Hwang’s hallucination is a caricature, this portrayal points to real issues in this country, like the prevalence of gun violence and the complexity of our electoral college voting system, forcing the audience to reconsider how exceptional America truly is.

The David Henry Hwang character dreams up this nightmare version of America after he’s stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant (something that happened to Hwang in real life), with the implication that he was targeted because he’s Asian. This adds another dimension to Soft Power, criticizing the recent racial intolerance that has taken hold in the American mainstream. Through him, the plays also examines the tension of trying to assimilate as a Chinese American and what’s lost when that happens, with Hwang speculating that it was hard for him to reimagine his pilot script from a Chinese point of view, since he worked so hard to prove himself as American his entire life.

The character who gets short shrift, relative to Hwang and Xue, is Clinton herself. You get the feeling that when she’s forced to twerk for the presidency, the play is being provocative for its own sake, rather than offering a nuanced view of how Clinton actually navigated gender politics in her political career. Overall though, Soft Power is an equal opportunity satire, skewering but showing respect to the perspectives represented. And with catchy songs, dynamic choreography and even a touching love story, Soft Power ends up being about more than the message.

Soft Power is written by David Henry Hwang, with music and lyrics by Jeanine Tesori. It’s directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. The play runs through Sunday, June 10 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For showtimes and tickets, visit their website.

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1 thought on “‘Soft Power’ skewers American exceptionalism”

  1. I attended one of the first nights of “Soft Power” and found it to be refreshingly creative, fun and thought-provoking. The night I attended, the play/musical received a lengthy standing ovation. Conservatives will absolutely hate this play and have walked out before intermission. Liberals will absolutely love the skewering of the current administration. And some of us Asian Americans will see our dual Chinese and American assimilation reflected in the play’s characters. David Henry Hwang is a gifted playwright. I consider “Soft Power” his best work to date.