Jin Ha Takes on Seven Questions About M Butterfly, Creating a New Song Liling, & The Social Constructs of Gender
December 5th, 2017
by Josh Ferri
Jin Ha makes a smashing Broadway debut as Song Liling (a Chinese opera singer and spy who is much more than she appears) in the first Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning drama M Butterfly. Directed by Julie Taymor and co-starring Clive Owen, the play is equal parts thriller, romance, and political theatre.
BroadwayBox caught up with Jin to talk about taking on the complex role, his time in the Chicago production of Hamilton, and what M Butterfly still has to teach audiences today.
1. What was the audition process like for M Butterfly ?
I submitted a self-tape from Chicago, had a callback in NYC a few weeks later, and got the call a month later. That's how all auditions go, right? (I kid.)
2. Once you were cast, where did you, Julie, and David start? How did you begin building your Song?
I began building the foundation of Song Liling when I auditioned for the role, and I've been adding layer on top of layer of knowledge, experience, and understanding since. We had a week-long workshop in NYC with the entire cast back in April—several months before rehearsals began. That time together was crucial and tremendously fruitful in preparing us for the work to come in the fall; it felt like a headstart on our collective and individual investigations into the play and our characters. Generally speaking, I follow my thread of curiosity in approaching any role. What comes to me intuitively? What doesn't? And where can I find more answers? Which undoubtedly leads me to more questions.
3. What’s the biggest challenge in the role and how do you overcome it?
Song is incredibly fearless—in being his unapologetically complex and beautiful self, in committing himself to a seemingly impossible relationship, in falling in love so passionately. I find it’s difficult to be so brave in our world today. With the omnipresence of social media and our “public personal” lives, we are constantly subject to the pressures of presenting our most exciting, most interesting, or “best” selves that conform to whichever norms are being sold to us at the time. It isn’t easy finding and being our true selves when we’re always told how we should or should want to be. Song lives, in spite of a time and place more outwardly oppressive than today, to his fullest. How do I get there every night? I trust in the words that David has gifted me. I trust in the world that Julie has crafted for us to play in. I trust in the work and preparation that I’ve put in thus far. And I trust in my cast and crew mates to lift each other up every night. We’re all trying to achieve the impossible together.
4. You wear the most stunning Constance Hoffman designs. Do you have a favorite look?
The first qipao dress that I wear might be my favorite. It's a dark wine colored bespoke dress with forest green trimming. Complemented with the make up, bangs, leggings, and heels...I’ve grown to feel beautiful and at home in that look.
5. How did your Columbia degree and living abroad most help or inform your M Butterfly performance?
My Columbia degree in East Asian Languages & Cultures provided me with the base knowledge of the socio-political world in which Song Liling (and Shi Peipu) lived. That is so important for me in getting to know a role; what was daily life like for this person? I, of course, had to do more in-depth research, but my liberal arts education taught me how to learn effectively and how to be facile with new information.
Less than living abroad, per se, I would say that growing up as an Asian-American immigrant in New England has informed a lot of my performance as Song. The themes of Orientalism, othering, and stereotyping that Song addresses and dismantles in our play parallel the obstacles that I have had and continue to face as an Asian-American man and as an Asian-American actor. A lot of what Song defiantly proclaims in the final courtroom scene resonates from my own experiences growing up.
6. Which was your favorite role in Hamilton Chicago to perform?
It's hard to say. My "Man 6" ensemble track that featured Philip Schuyler, James Reynolds, and Philip Hamilton's doctor will always be my day one, my home base, my anchor. That being said, King George III is a brilliant comedic role that has, I believe, 15 minutes of total stage time, with only 9 of those being the solo numbers? That’s cushy. Burr, though, has such incredible songs and, as our narrator, a profoundly full and far-reaching arc. It was always a thrill performing him—took everything I had in me every time. And Alexander Hamilton I only performed once—on my last day in Chicago—so I didn’t get to settle into him. (...yet?)
7. Beyond the sensationalism of the love story, what do you most hope audiences take away from M Butterfly today?
There is no universal notion or definition of what it is to be a man or to be a woman. Masculinity and femininity should be what you want it to be for yourself—and nobody else. We have been taught and are still taught to believe in certain social boundaries of gender or sex or sexuality. Dismiss the noise. Be your brave, beautiful self.
Don't miss Jin Ha's brilliant Broadway debut in M Butterfly at Broadway's Cort Theatre through January 14, 2018.