When the audience first sees Song Liling take the stage in M. Butterfly, director Julie Taymor's revival of David Henry Hwang's classic play about a French diplomat who falls hard for a mysterious Chinese opera singer, he's dressed in a silk kimono, with heavy makeup and a long, flowing ponytail.
Those familiar with the original already know the spoiler: Song is a man masquerading as a woman, who successfully coaxes the love-struck Monsieur Gallimard (played by Clive Owen) into thinking the opposite. But in this adaptation, Liling's character is multifaceted—he's a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.
Taking on the role(s) is newcomer Jin Ha, a graduate of NYU's Tisch Graduate Acting program who cut his teeth in the Chicago production of Hamilton. Here, he discusses his Broadway debut, playing a romantic lead alongside Owen, and why dresses are more comfortable than pants.
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What attracted you to the role of Song Liling?
David has been a hero of mine for a long time—he's one of the lighthouses of Asian American theater art. When M. Butterfly first premiered in 1988, it really pushed the envelope, and I think it still does today, in terms of flipping orientalism on its head and challenging whatever preconceived notions that audience members may have.
People still hold stereotypes and prejudices toward countries like China and North Korea because they're different from us, politically and culturally. Song Liling is such a monumental role because of how self-assured and knowing he is. His intelligence and fearlessness and passion is revolutionary in itself. Plus, at the crux of the play is two people who love each other beyond imagination, which is an experience that most people can relate to.
Speaking of, what was it like getting intimate with Clive Owen on stage?
He's wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect partner for this show. He really cares about the work and loves the rehearsal process. And it also helps that he's a great guy. And a great kisser!
What were the most challenging aspects of the job?
Well, I wear women's dresses throughout the play—with a bodysuit, heels, and full makeup—so becoming comfortable with that was an adjustment for me. Between every scene, I'm frantically changing in and out of clothes. It's like a runway show, but I'm the only model. I've come to love wearing dresses, though. They're really comfortable and easy to wear.
How did it feel nailing the audition? What sealed the deal?
I actually sang "You'll Be Back," performed by King George in Hamilton. It had absolutely nothing to do with the role, but I think it helped show a different side of me—and hopefully proved I can sing, too.
With the success of Hamilton and shows like Master of None, there seems to be more interest in ethnically-diverse casts. Do you think Broadway and Hollywood are becoming more inclusive?
There have certainly been improvements—like Riz Ahmed and Lena Waithe winning at the Emmys—but every time someone gets recognition, we're reminded that it's the first time that has ever happened. There's enough statistical evidence that the vast majority of TV roles still go to white actors. And of course, there's still the phenomenon of whitewashing. We're beyond ready for more representative and socially just roles that reflect the world in which we currently live.
Riz Ahmed recently spoke out against being typecast as a terrorist. Do you think minority actors are doing a disservice by accepting parts that are intrinsically linked to their race?
I'm going to be real: I really don't like Miss Saigon. I really don't like The King and I. They're outdated and archaic. No matter how you twist and turn them or try to adapt them, it's not going to change the fact that they were written by and for white men.
I don't blame the actors that take those roles for a second—it's a steady paycheck, which is so cherished in this industry. But I hope that going forward, there will be better representation, and more nuanced opportunities from directors, producers, and writers. People have asked me what my dream role is. I like to say that it hasn't been written yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed.