Ep5 – Soft Power and Democracy, U.S.-China Relations, and Asian-American Culture

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Three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and director Leigh Silverman join former national security advisor to VP Joe Biden, former policy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and U.S. policymaker Jake Sullivan and journalist, media consultant, author, and “Asian Pop” columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle Jeff Yang to discuss the musical-within-a-play Soft Power. The piece covers the merits and pitfalls of democracy, the American electoral system, the American campaign system, U.S.-China relations, cultural appropriation, racism and hate crimes in America, soft power itself, and more.

This episode of Why We Theater focuses on democracy, voting rights, and appreciating Asian-American perspectives and culture. Is democracy the best system of government? How do we improve our electoral system now? What must we keep in mind for the November 2020 Presidential Election? What is soft power and how do we wield it responsibly? Do Americans have a say in how we interact with foreign nations? How? Listen to find out.

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Why We Theater is a product of part of the Broadway Podcast Network, edited by Derek Gunther, and produced by Alan Seales.

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Our theme music is by Benjamin Velez. Hear more at BenjaminVelez.com.

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Special thanks to Dori Berinstein, Leigh Silverman, Patrick Taylor, Tony Montenieri, Elena Mayer, Wesley Birdsall, and Suzanne Chipkin.

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About Our Guests

David Henry Hwang, playwright and librettist

David is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Tony winner, a two-time additional Tony nominee, a three-time Obie Award winner, and the librettist of Soft Power. David’s stage works includes the plays M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face, Kung Fu, Golden Child, The Dance and the Railroad, and FOB, as well as the Broadway musicals Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song(2002 revival) and Disney’s Tarzan. David is also the most-produced living American opera librettist, whose works have been honored with two Grammy Awards, co-wrote the Gold Record Solo with the late pop icon Prince, and worked from 2015-2019 as a writer/consulting producer for the Golden Globe-winning television series The Affair. He is currently writing the live-action musical feature film The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Disney Studios and a movie to star actress Gemma Chan. David serves on the Board of the Lark Play Development Center, as Head of Playwriting at Columbia University School of the Arts, and as Chair of the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards. M. Butterfly returned to Broadway in a revival directed by Julie Taymor, which marked Mr. Hwang’s eighth Broadway production. Soft Power, a collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), premiered at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, where it won six Ovation Awards. Its subsequent run at the Public Theatre in NYC received four Outer Critics Honors, eleven Drama Desk Nominations, and was a Finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. David was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2018.


Leigh Silverman, director

A director in high demand, Silverman is a pioneer in the theatre. Her work consistently grapples with real-world issues from stories of immigration to journalistic integrity, climate change to the merits of democracy. She champions representation in the theatre and her Broadway production of The Lifespan of a Fact marked the first all-female design team in Broadway history. Her select credits include Broadway’s Grand Horizons (2ST; Williamstown Theater Festival); The Lifespan of a Fact (Studio 54); Violet (Roundabout; Tony nomination); Chinglish (Goodman Theatre; Longacre); Well (Public Theater; ACT; Longacre); and recent Off-Broadway’s Tumacho (Clubbed Thumb); Soft Power (Public Theater; Ahmanson Theater/ Curran Theater); Hurricane Diane (New York Theatre Workshop; Two River Theater); Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theatre/Audible, Minetta Lane; Lortel nom). Encores: Violet; The Wild Party; Really Rosie. She received the 2011 Obie Award and 2019 Obie for Sustained Excellence.


Jake Sullivan, American policymaker

Jake Sullivan is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Geoeconomics and Strategy Program and Magro Family Distinguished Fellow at Dartmouth College. Jake served in the Obama administration as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State, as well as deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was the senior policy adviser on Secretary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and previously served as deputy policy director on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary campaign and as a member of the debate preparation team for Barack Obama’s general election campaign. Jake has also been a senior policy adviser and chief counsel to Senator Amy Klobuchar from his home state of Minnesota, worked as an associate for Faegre & Benson LLP, and taught at the University of St. Thomas Law School. He clerked for Judge Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States and Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He holds both undergraduate and law degrees from Yale and a master’s degree from Oxford.


Jeff Yang, journalist 

Jeff Yang has been a columnist for the Wall Street Journal (“Tao Jones), was founder and editor-in-chief of the groundbreaking Asian American publication A. Magazine, and has regularly contributed to CNN Opinion and Inkstone, the digital magazine of the South China Morning Post. He currently co-hosts the podcast They Call Us Bruce with Phil Yu. Jeff was also the “Asian Pop” columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China; I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action (with Jackie Chan); and Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology. He co-wrote the second graphic novel in the Secret Identities series, Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology. He has written for the Village Voice, VIBE, Spin, and Condé Nast Portfolio. Jeff has also been a business/media consultant leading strategy in Asian markets for Iconoculture, Inc. Jeff developed the Emmy-nominated television show Stir. He is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association.

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