Curran Theatre: Review of Soft Power
By Gwendolyn Leong

I came to see Soft Power expecting to see an Asian version of Black Panther: nuanced Asian characters, a “cool” China that’s not Westernized (as it currently is now), something for Chinese Americans to be proud of, something uniquely Chinese and not Hollywood’s bastardization of it.

And while yes, Soft Power (by playwright David Henry Hwang) does bring its nuanced Asian characters, Soft Power didn’t take us to a Chinese Wakanda. Instead, it takes us to America as seen through Chinese eyes. Where the Americans are the foreigners, the man from China is the hero, and the United States is a strange, savage, ridiculous country.

The satire is sharp, smart, and incredibly funny. Soft Power doles out an abundance of jokes at the white man’s expense. It’s the American characters that talk in funny accents, whose culture is barbaric (everyone is rude and every disagreement escalates to a gunfight). Even the way they dance is strange (cue some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “dabbing” and “flossing” and one climactic “twerking” scene - I applaud their choreographer).

The most pointed jokes in this China-satires-America setup are when Soft Power strikes at the heart of America. Democracy! What a laugh! Even sexist jerks get to vote! The electoral system makes no sense.  Presidential candidates must sing and dance to (hopefully) secure their vote. 

In the second half, the escalating political conflict holds a mirror up to our own drama in recent years:  the shocking results of the presidential elections, the resurgence of racism and hate crimes, the president threatening to bomb other countries, frustration with the American system.

On stage, Hillary Clinton sadly binges on pizza and ice cream. The Chinese hero says to her, “Do you still believe in this broken system?” And Hillary sings, "Yes democracy drives me crazy, but I still believe in it. I still believe that democracy can change this country."

In the dream-sequence, it is the man from China who saves America. But at the very end of the play - the curtain is pulled back, and the whole cast comes on stage, clad in plain clothes, and they sing that reprise, stating in no uncertain terms that it is up to us to change our country. Democracy, even though you drive me crazy, I still believe in you.

Soft Power looks at the things wrong with America and inspires you to hope. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see what is truly good.
When You Go:
Soft Power plays until July 8
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St.
San Francisco

Note to parents: This play uses the F-word liberally, so you've been alerted!

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