Spoilers ahead! Read no further if you’d prefer to remain blissfully ignorant to the exotic mysteries of M. Butterfly. After all, a woman is entitled to her secrets.
Julie Taymor (The Lion King) helms the first Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning 1988 drama, a twist on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The play was based on a real-life scandal, and more recent findings about that love affair inspired Hwang’s substantial rewrite for the new staging.
Oscar nominee Clive Owen stars as Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat who has a 20-year romance with Song Liling, a beguiling Chinese opera singer whom he perceives to be the perfect woman. Broadway newcomer Jin Ha, hot off Hamilton in Chicago, plays Song, who is ultimately revealed to be—you were warned!—a communist spy and a man.
Put at ease by the promise of spoiler alerts preceding our interview, Ha shines a spotlight on his and his character’s true identities.
You graduated last year from the MFA program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and now you’re making your Broadway debut opposite Clive Owen in a major revival directed by Julie Taymor. Pinching yourself?
I’m slapping myself after standing in the sun for eight hours and then rubbing myself with sandpaper. It’s so surreal, but I can’t allow myself to linger in that line of thinking.
Were you familiar with M. Butterfly before this revival?
I was very familiar. David Henry Hwang is a lighthouse for Asian-American artists, and this role is paramount in terms of Asian-American representation in theater.
Do you find that most audiences are already familiar with the play, or are they experiencing its revelations through fresh eyes?
It’s been a mixed bag, and we’ve come at that from different ways. For example, Julie has wanted to keep me shrouded in some mystery when it comes to how I’m presented in public. She’s been taking advantage of the fact that I’m new to the scene, and I’ve been doing what I can to support her vision.
I noticed that your Playbill bio avoids male pronouns.
I’d originally written my gender pronouns as “he” and “his,” but Julie suggested I switch them to non-gendered pronouns for anyone questioning my gender while flipping through their Playbill at intermission. Of course, you can find out all about me through a quick Google search. People who look at my social media beforehand may come in knowing that I’m a cisgender, heterosexual man, but they may not be familiar with the story.
The original Broadway production ran for almost two years and was adapted into a 1993 movie starring Jeremy Irons. Aren’t audiences probably somewhat aware of the narrative?
Well, the Broadway premiere wasn’t long after the global scandal involving Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, so that had just been in the news. A lot of people now, especially younger folk, don’t realize that the play is based on a true story about these real people.
We live in a very different time than when the play premiered almost 30 years ago. Theatergoers aren’t as fazed by sexual fluidity or nonbinary identities. How does that affect this revival and your approach to the character?
That’s informed everything. With the rewrite, I think the biggest difference from the ’88 version is that the play no longer presents such a distinct binary in terms of gender expression. It’s not about a masculine male pretending to be a feminine female to manipulate another heteronormative, masculine male. For me, it’s more about the relationship between two people who fall in love very sincerely.
But they’re two men in 1960s Beijing.
Exactly. Because of the societal and personal pressures, Song understands that in order for this relationship to exist in the comfort of Gallimard’s mind, he must present himself as a woman. But in spite of all the obstacles, their relationship is still possible.
Didn’t Song initially pose as a woman to extract information from Gallimard as a spy?
It’s intentionally unclear. In the original version of the play, the espionage element was highlighted from the beginning. Our version starts with their attraction and chemistry, and the espionage is more of a minor detail. Ultimately, I hope it resonates that what we are or how we identify shouldn’t matter when we feel a connection with someone. That’s universal—and so important today with people trying to compartmentalize queer folk.
People may still try to define Song in terms they can comprehend. Is that missing the point?
I think so. Well, I have no control over the audience’s experience, but Song clearly identifies as male, his assigned gender from birth. When Song presents himself and his male genitalia to Gallimard, there’s no sense of gender dysphoria there. Song’s asking Gallimard to accept him for everything that he is. Why does this detail make any difference in what they had? Because everything else, including Song’s femininity, is the same.
What insight should audiences take away regarding gender and sexual orientation?
Song is Song. My goal is to present a fully three-dimensional person, and I hope that audiences will realize and accept that there’s clear no notion of what it means to be a man or a woman, homosexual or heterosexual. The point is that we’re all on a spectrum.
The play asks whether Gallimard was legitimately unaware or willfully ignorant of Song’s true identity. What do you think?
I truly don’t know. How much do we believe what we want to believe? To quote one of Song’s lines in the courtroom scene, “when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman.” Both of them projected their fantasies onto each other, and it was that immaculate intertwining of fantasies that made that relationship possible and last for so long.
Have you heard from any audience members who were shocked to discover that Song is a man?
We do string the audience along through Gallimard’s experience of confusion and questioning Song’s identity, and I think we’ve paved some pretty good pivots throughout the play. Recently, when I go fully nude and reveal myself at the end, someone in the front row let out a deep, guttural “Whoa.” Then he whispered, “What the fuck?” It was distracting but also heartwarming, because this guy really came along with us on the journey.
Do you have any anxiety about that nude scene?
I don’t feel any nervousness around it because it’s so crucial. Even when auditioning, I understood that the role demanded nudity. It isn’t gratuitous, and Julie has handled it beautifully. Besides, I got naked onstage in grad school plenty of times.
B.D. Wong, who earned a Tony for his performance as Song in the original Broadway production, was able to approach the role as a gay man. How did you approach Song as a straight guy?
It’s an important question. As an Asian-American actor, I have very personal feelings about casting and representation because of the white-washing and yellow-facing still happening today. Should Song be played by a queer actor? I understand if people are upset because they feel that this is their story, not mine. Not being gay, I don’t have the experience of that social persecution, but I can translate that to how I’ve been socially persecuted as an Asian-American immigrant. I grew up in New England, and how I fit in those very white spaces informed how Song coat-switches and presents his true self.
Did you encounter any obstacles as a straight actor?
I’m quite comfortable with my sexuality, and I don’t fit into gender binaries that were taught to me when I was growing up. It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine loving a man, because I think men are beautiful and I’ve been attracted to men. I believe that attraction transcends sexual orientation—and having Clive as my scene partner doesn’t hurt.
He’s a major movie star, and you have to be quite intimate. Was that intimidating?
It was terrifying. But he’s been so generous, open, and enthusiastic about the work. He’s made it so easy for us to have a relationship, onstage and off.
How did you physically prepare to present as female for most of the show?
I did some Beijing opera training, which is focused on gestures and mannerisms, and I spent many hours just people-watching. I’ve also worked with a trainer and lost about 17 pounds. I needed to be a little more svelte than I was while doing Hamilton because I’m playing Gallimard’s feminine ideal—and so that I could fit into the dresses.
Well, you look snatched. Have you done drag before?
It’s totally new for me but I really love it. We have an amazing makeup artist, and there are never fewer than three people on all parts of me—someone’s changing my dress, someone’s doing my lips, someone’s tousling my hair—and helping to make me beautiful.
Speaking of hair, Song is one smooth criminal.
Yeah, I’m shaving my face every day and between shows on two-show days. I’ve also gotten a full-body wax and I have to keep it shaved. I didn’t realize how hairy I was until I had to get rid of it.
M. Butterfly is now playing at the Cort Theatre in New York.