Born-and-bred San Francisco native Francis Jue will be returning to perform before hometown audiences in a new production, Soft Power, at the Curran Theater (through July 8). Soft Power is a contemporary comedy by David Henry Hwang and Jeaninne Tesori that explodes into a musical fantasia as it rewinds our recent political history, and plays it back a century later. Jue, playing the playwright Hwang himself (DHH), brings his special brand of wry humor both in his perfectly timed physical movements as well as his quick, witty dialogue throughout the show.
Jue appeared in the original Broadway production of M. Butterfly, as understudy of the title character Song Liling. In the second national tour of the show in 1991, he went from understudy to star of the hit show. His talents earned him the 2008 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor and the Obie Award for his performance in David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Public Theater.
His career has taken him around the globe, although he is based in New York. San Francisco Bay Area audiences have enjoyed his past work in TheatreWorks’ productions of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Amadeus, and as the narrator in Into the Woods (a role that earned him the 2006 Bay Area Critics Award). Television audiences are familiar with Jue, as he has appeared often in a recurring role of Chinese Foreign Minister Chen on the CBS-TV series “Madam Secretary,” as well as Judge Ong on Law and Order: SVU.
At the world premiere of Soft Power at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater in May, we caught up with the dynamic actor to hear some of his thoughts about this play and his longtime career as one of the first Asian-American actors working in film, television, and on Broadway.
GENTRY: Growing up in a typical Chinese-American family, the sixth of nine children living in San Francisco’s Richmond District and attending St. Ignatius High School, when did you first discover your love of performing?
JUE: My earliest memory was of wanting to be Elvis. If you knew what a geeky, shy kid I was, you’d know how funny that is. I didn’t see many models of Asian-American actors while I was young, so I never thought it was possible. But I loved doing it and my first professional gig was the revival of Pacific Overtures as the boy in the tree. I was suddenly among a company of Asian American actors who were making it, in one way or an- other. It was a revelation for me!
GENTRY: How did your parents react when you told them you preferred the theater rather than pursuing the usual doctor, lawyer, or engineer career route most Chinese-American parents desire for their offspring?
JUE: My parents were very supportive. They even let me take time off from Yale, where I was studying, in order to do that revival of “Pacific Overtures.” But I’m sure that didn’t stop them from worrying about me and wanting me to settle into something more secure. I did make them happy completing my BS degree from Yale University eventually.
GENTRY: How did you get involved in this new show Soft Power working with David Henry Hwang again?
JUE: About two years ago, director Leigh Silverman asked me to attach myself to this project being written by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori. They had no script and it was scary turning down a lot of other jobs without knowing what this show was to become. But with these three amazing and generous creators, how could I say no?
GENTRY: As the play stands now, what are your thoughts regarding its development and its message, as well as your involvement?
JUE: The show is a very personal one, recounting some actual events in David Henry Hwang’s own life, as well as the country’s. It speaks from an Asian-American point of view, and what I’m finding most gratifying is how much audiences are identifying with the humor and the feelings in the show, and finding catharsis—and hope. The play and the musical feel like they are in conversation with one another. David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori have done a brilliant job of laying the groundwork and then knocking us off balance so that we examine themes in surprising ways. American identity, cultural appropriation, face and heart, masculine and feminine—all these thoughts are brought up in the play and then the musical picks all that up.
GENTRY: Your song at the finale is very moving to the audience. What did you hope to project?
JUE: David could have ended this show with an angry tone. Instead he asks for hope. In spite of all the polarization and cruelty in today’s world, he asks us to continue to have faith. At the end, I sing, surprised by joy: “I still believe.” Surrounded by this astounding all-Asian company, lifted by a soul-fortifying orchestra, it always gets me. At the end of the show, what goes through my head is, “There is still love, there is still love, there is still love.”
GENTRY: The show depicts Hwang being attacked and the Chinese businessman facing angry, discriminative brutality as soon as he steps off the plane. Have you experienced personal discrimination?
JUE: Many have experienced more discrimination than I have, but I continue to encounter misconceptions and limitations based on what folks believe about Asian Americans in this industry. An Asian-American career path is often very different from others—we aren’t offered the same opportunities. And when we do perform, some audiences still see us as symbols representing foreigners, and not a human experience with which the audience might connect. Things are definitely getting better in terms of representation and there is a whole new generation of Asian-American writers doing fabulous things and getting produced all over the country. We still have a ways to go, but I am hopeful.
GENTRY: The world premiere of Soft Power was met with standing ovations and rave reviews. How do you expect the Bay Area theatergoers to react to the play?
JUE: I know that folks from all different perspectives have come to see us, and it sparks a lot of conversation. Honestly, I’m overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the reception we’ve been getting here in Los Angeles. It feels like this is a show that audiences need right now. I’m so grateful to have been part of the development of this new piece by these phenomenal artists almost from the beginning. I get to face the challenge of playing David Henry Hwang, one of my heroes. And I have to be as vulnerable as I’ve ever been on stage, talking about things close to my own heart. However, I’m looking forward to returning to my hometown of San Francisco and meeting family and old friends again. I hope they will come to see this wonderful contemporary show, not just because I’m in it.
Tickets for Soft Power are available by calling 415.358.1220 or visiting www.sfcurran.com/soft-power.