It often happens that real-life events will steer a new work in development, in unexpected directions. In the case of Soft Power, the new musical-within-a-play co-written by Tony winners David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, two major events are worth nothing: in late 2015, Hwang was stabbed in the neck while walking home with groceries in Brooklyn, and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
The original idea behind Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman at the Public Theater following two hit West Coast runs, was a “parallel King and I” in which a Chinese executive becomes an advisor to President Hillary Clinton; Hwang’s impulse, from the beginning, was to subvert the white-savior trope at the heart of such stories. Following the election, however, the show became an exploration of America’s current place in the world.
Hwang’s stabbing is also central to the story. Actually, Hwang is in the story—as a character named DHH, a playwright who has been commissioned by a Chinese production arm to adapt a beloved romcom for the Shanghai stage. “I feel that most writers write autobiographically in one sense or another because you have to connect the material in some deep personal way in order to create something,” says Hwang, whose semi-autobiographical 2007 play Yellow Face also featured the author. “The only distinction, really, is whether you name the character after yourself.”
“Soft Power shifted with the history of the country and with David himself,” says Tesori, pointing also to the parallels between Hwang’s stabbing and the ways in which many Americans responded to the election. “Many of us felt attacked and ill-prepared for the inevitability that was that election… [We believed that] we were safe and then in one violent act—it felt violent—everything came apart.”
Just as unpredictable was Hwang and Tesori’s creative approach to Soft Power, a play with music that evolved constantly and remains uncategorizable. Reluctant to put a label on the style of music in the show, Tesori says simply that she wrote “deeply from my love of classical musical theatre.” For the creators, choosing to tell a story from China’s point of view via the American art form of the musical gets to the heart of the show’s political message.
“[Soft Power] is investigating how we have come to define ourselves as Americans, how we perceive ourselves, and how the world perceives us in relation to the cultural works that we put out there,” says Hwang. “How does the reality of America either support or contradict the mythology that we’ve created for ourselves through many different cultural forms—including the musical?”