‘M. Butterfly’ Hits Close to Home : Stage: For Francis Jue, typecasting and stereotype issues raised in David Henry Hwang’s work transfer into his professional and personal life.
When “M. Butterfly” completes its run Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre, thereby ending the show’s second national tour, the rights for this three-time Tony winner will become available.
Francis Jue, who plays the Chinese man who fooled a Western male diplomat into thinking he was a woman for nearly two decades, will become available, too.
“I’d love to do ‘The Heidi Chronicles,’ ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ ‘The Boys Next Door,’ ” he said during a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, where he was taking a brief holiday break.
Jue, 28, doesn’t mind appearing a bit eager, for he has found that people stereotype him as an Asian-American 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 a French diplomat and the Chinese actor who fooled him for nearly two decades.
Hwang’s take on the story is that the diplomat was set up by his stereotype of Chinese women as being like the vulnerable Mme. Butterfly. The diplomat told a reporter that his encounters with his lover were hasty and always took place in the dark--which he attributed to Chinese custom. According to Hwang, the man was easy to deceive because he bought Western stereotypes of Asian women as shy and submissive.
When he auditioned for parts as an undergraduate at Yale, Jue was frequently overlooked on the basis of race, he said, and was not given the kinds of roles that typically 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,” Jue said. “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.
“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.
“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.”
Jue had some success, playing Peter Pan in a Palo Alto production and in “Pacific Overtures” Off Broadway. Yet “M. Butterfly” gave him his first starring role and changed his life.
He was working 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, who was then playing the role originated by B. D. Wong. For a year, starting in August 1990, Jue understudied Mapa on the first national tour, which played Beverly Hills last summer.
Then Jue starred in this final tour of 35 North American cities.
Studying the work of Wong and Mapa showed Jue it was possible to find very different, yet still valid, interpretations of the role.
“B. D. was very technical, very precise. He gave the impression of a very sophisticated woman who went to the best of schools. He emphasized the spying and the glee with which he tricked (the man).
“Alec was much more of a coquette, a sassy, brassy woman--streetwise.
“I think 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 (the diplomat), eventually.
“My emphasis is how confusing the spying becomes when I find out that I really do love this person . . . and 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 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 (Madame) 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 first hand how women are treated and how they get pigeonholed and coerced and caressed--how easy and how difficult it is.”