Producers and casting directors, take note.
When “M. Butterfly” completes its Wednesday-through-Sunday run at the San Diego Civic Theatre, ending the show’s second national tour, the rights for this three-time Tony winner will become available for regional theaters.
The lead, Francis Jue, who plays the Chinese man who fooled a male lover into thinking he was a woman for nearly two decades, will become available, too.
And he is already looking for work.
“If San Diego has a slot open, let me know, and I’ll come and read for you,” he said. “There are a lot of plays that I would love to do. I’m looking forward to working at different regional theaters. I’d love to do ‘The Heidi Chronicles,’ ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ ‘The Boys Next Door.’ I don’t mind your putting that in your story,” he said during a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, where he was taking a brief holiday break.
Jue, 28, said he doesn’t mind appearing a bit eager.
He has received glowing reviews for his work in the role of Song Liling, which he has played since 1989, first as an understudy, and for the past four months full-time in the touring production. But he said he has found that people stereotype him as an Asian-American actor and don’t think of him for mainstream parts.
Ironically, “M. Butterfly” is about just such typecasting.
Playwright David Henry Hwang based his play on the true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot (Rene Gallimard in the play) and the Chinese actor, Shi Peipu (Song Liling in the play), who fooled him for nearly two decades. Peipu even convinced him that he had borne them a child while Boursicot was away in the Amazon.
Boursicot passed secrets to the Chinese to help Peipu. Finally, when they were jailed in France for espionage, Boursicot found out that Shi was a he. The diplomat expressed shock, and the world wondered: How was it possible for such a massive deception to take place?
Hwang’s take on the story is that the diplomat’s stereotype of Chinese women as being like the vulnerable Mme. Butterfly of operatic fame set him up.
Boursicot told the New York Times, which broke the story in 1986, that their meetings were hasty and always took place in the dark.
“He was very shy,” the diplomat said. “I thought it was a Chinese custom.”
Hwang wrote in his author’s notes that such discretion was “not a Chinese custom.” Hwang said he believes that Boursicot was easy to deceive because he bought into Western stereotypes of Asian women as shy and submissive.
As Hwang fictionalized the story around his central idea, he changed Boursicot’s name to Rene Gallimard and Peipu’s to Song Liling.
Though Liling is a perfect part for an Asian actor, such roles don’t come along often. Jue has played in a revival of “Pacific Overtures” off Broadway. He also played the lead in “Peter Pan” at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.
“There is a paucity of roles for Asian-American actors, and I think there is not a whole lot of non-traditional casting going on,” Jue said. “TheatreWorks has offered a lot of support, but I don’t think a lot of theaters have risked that kind of casting. More likely, they’ll have one non-human role that a non-Anglo can play.”
“Part of the problem is that there are not as many Asian-American works out there as there will be in the future. I think that, because people see plays like ‘M. Butterfly’ doing so well, they’ll look more seriously at plays that employ Asian Americans in Asian-American roles.”
When he auditioned for parts as an undergraduate at Yale University, Jue also was frequently overlooked on the basis of race, he said, and was not given the kinds of roles that are given to white actors. Despite being a fourth-generation American with no accent, he was perceived as a foreigner.
“I was made to feel very much like an outsider, not just because I wasn’t from New England and wasn’t an athlete. People seemed surprised to find out that I was an English major. Surprisingly, even in a school atmosphere, I was not considered for major roles, even in musical theater. People would say (the characters in) ‘Guys and Dolls’ aren’t Chinese. In ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ Jesus wasn’t Chinese. In ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ these two (characters) are best friends and you just wouldn’t fit the bill.”
“I’ve even been told at an audition that I wasn’t Asian enough, which is very odd coming from someone who is not Asian,” Jue said.
“It’s difficult, when you’re part of a minority population, to even know exactly what your own culture is, because you’re trying to assimilate and make do in the culture and maintain your identity as well.”
“M. Butterfly,” which gave him his first major, starring role, changed his life.
Jue was living in San Francisco, working at a day job at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation when he auditioned for the 1988 Broadway production of “M. Butterfly.”
Six months after his first audition, in 1989, he was cast as the understudy to A. Mapa. Mapa, who then starred as Liling, had originally been the understudy to B.D. Wong, the actor who originated and won a Tony for the role. For a year, starting in August, 1990, Jue understudied Mapa on the first national tour, before starring in this final tour of 35 North American cities.
Studying the work of these two actors showed Jue it was possible to find very different, yet still valid, powerful interpretations of the role. This gave Jue confidence to try his own unique interpretation, he said.
“B.D. was very technical, very precise. He gave the impression of a very sophisticated woman who went to the best of schools. His emphasis was about the spying and the glee with which he tricked Gallimard.
“Alec was much more of a coquette, a sassy, brassy woman--streetwise.
“I think that the play is a love story--a story about deceit and fantasy and illusion. My interpretation is that she’s a little more guileless. I prefer to think that she really does fall in love with Gallimard, eventually.
“For me my emphasis is how confusing the spying becomes when I find out that I really do love this person, and at the end I find out exactly how dependent I am on the stereotypes I create for myself. Stereotypes don’t just imprison other people, they imprison ourselves when we create them for other people.”
That’s a lesson Jue said has helped him in his own life. In his own personal long-term relationship with a non-Asian, he said he has had to stop himself from using Asian stereotypes to press his own advantage.
“I’m more aware of myself pulling Butterflies, of pulling guilt trips, of playing games. I’ve learned to become a little more honest with myself and with my partner. I dare say I’ve learned a little more about women and women’s situations. I get to see firsthand how women are treated and how they get pigeonholed and coerced and caressed--how easy and how difficult it is.”