BWW Exclusive: Conrad Ricamora Rises to SOFT POWER and Blasts Trump for Getting Away With Racism
Conrad Ricamora is best-known to millions of TV viewers as Oliver, the cute computer whiz, on ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder." But this 2013 Theatre World Award winner also can slay an audience onstage as he has proven Off-Broadway in "Here Lies Love" and on Broadway in "The King and I." And Ricamora is currently "killing it" as the star of "Soft Power," David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori's bold, new musical. Directed by Leigh Silverman, it is playing through July 8 at the Curran in San Francisco.
It's a witty, wacky and passionately political show that practically defies description, but here goes: The first 25 minutes of "Soft Power" is a comedy about Xue Xing (Ricamora), a Chinese movie executive, in 2016. He's trying to persuade DHH (Francis Jue), a comic version of Hwang, to create a TV show set in Shanghai. The two debate issues, like income inequality. Xing quips: "How will you get the rich to give up their money if you can't even get the mentally ill to give up their guns?'' Later, DHH gets attacked by a thug, and ''Soft Power'' leapfrogs 50 years ahead and becomes a Chinese musical about Xing falling in love with Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis). Liberally steeped in satire, it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but critics have been drinking it in with lots of praise.
At its May 16 world premiere at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times called ''Soft Power'' ''a wonderfully funny'' and ''bouncy exploration of ... East-West relations in a theatrical package overflowing with Broadway showmanship.'' He also raved that the "wildly charismatic" Ricamora has a "sumptuous voice [that] could charm hooligans at a Trump rally."
After its June 21 opening in San Francisco, Lily Janiak of the S.F. Chronicle hailed "Soft Power" as ''daring'' and ''one of the defining theatrical works of the Trump era.'' The show ''could use some tweaks,'' but she, too, praised Ricamora's "sumptuous'' vocals.
At "Soft Power's" opening-night party, Hwang said: ''We're so lucky we found Conrad. He sings like a dream and dances and everything. He's easy to work with, fast, skillful and always full of heart. And he and Alyse have such wonderful chemistry."
We chatted with Ricamora, 39, about working with the Tony-winning team of Hwang and Tesori. And though President Trump is never mentioned by name in ''Soft Power,'' Ricamora wasn't shy about lambasting his "ridiculous" and "racist" policies. The out and outspoken actor, who says he was constantly called a "faggot" in school, also revealed how he survived his tormented teen years, a suicide attempt and years of therapy. And now, he's proud of how much "How to Get Away With Murder" speaks to his LGBT fans.
Incredible! I've been their fans for so long. I wanted to work with them ever since I read David's ''Yellow Face,'' starting out as an actor, and saw Jeanine's ''Caroline, or Change.'' Working with them has been the greatest acting exercise. They write and refine so quickly on their feet, so we'll get a lot of pages or a lot of music. You just dive in and commit. It's definitely challenged me as an actor.
The L.A. Times calls ''Soft Power'' ''spectacularly unique.'' How do you describe it to your friends and family?
I tell them it's a play that turns into a musical. After a traumatic event, it centers on the 2016 election, racism and politically charged issues, like gun control. But you can't describe ''Soft Power'' in one sentence, and that's what I love about our show.
Your character, Xue Xing, is a movie executive who wants to expand China's "soft power," its cultural influence, on America through entertainment. Xing speaks imperiously in pidgin English (''What you mean?''), but later he loses his accent when the show bursts into a musical. Early on, were you doing a humorous homage to Yul Brynner, the original star of ''The King and I''?
No. I've actually never seen the movie. I wanted Xing to be an imposing presence, because he's trying to push his agenda, to get China seen. "The King and I'' references are built into the show, but as an actor, I'm just playing my character as fully and as grounded as I can, without any references to them. But when Xing and Hillary dance together for the first time, the audience breaks into applause because they recognize it's "Shall We Dance?" It's so iconic. And it's such a moment of connection and levity. It's a blast.
David says he loves ''The King and I'' and especially its songs, but its premise of a white savior in Anna is kinda cringeworthy.
Even when you do ''The King and I'' with as much integrity as you can can, the King comes off as a comedic device. It's nice to turn that on its head [in ''Soft Power'']. Usually, it's the white foreigners who come to the exotic land and teach the natives how to live. We [Asians] have always accepted that [stereotype] because we didn't have anything else. But now it's nice to be part of the change.
In 2016, I interviewed Jose Llana, your ''Here Lies Love'' co-star. He was leading the national tour of ''The King and I,'' and it was the day after the election. Being a big Hillary Clinton supporter, Jose was devastated by her loss. How did you react?
Omigod. It's still reverberating. I went into a period of mourning. Then, I went into a period of action. We need to stay on top of this. We've got a leader of our country who legitimizes white nationalists. And the Muslim travel ban that just passed is because [Trump] got Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court. It's unfathomable and ridiculous how much racism is now part of [his] presidency. This fall and at the next presidential election, it's so important to mobilize and stand up for compassion and stare down this bigotry.
You're a product of multiracial America. Your dad's Filipino, and your mom's German-Irish. So is it ironic that many call Trump's policies ''racist," while his wife, Melania, says she loves ''How to Get Away With Murder,'' which is so ethnically diverse?
Yeah. My show is probably the most diverse one on TV. We represent so many minorities. I'm glad Melania enjoys it. I just hope that [diversity] is valued and celebrated in the outside world, not just with her, but with everyone else. It's not just entertainment. This is what our country really looks like. Let's protect and make laws that benefit everyone, not just rich, white guys.
In ''Soft Power,'' you're surrounded by terrifically gifted, Asian-American actors, and your leading lady, Alyse Alan Louis, who plays Hillary, is Caucasian. The audience adores Alyse whether she's belting a blues tune about democracy or dancing up a storm atop a giant McDonald's hamburger bun. But you two also work so well together, and Alyse told us: ''I love Conrad. It's a gift to have chemistry with him. Everything we do, from acting to dancing, is built on trust.'' What's it like performing with Alyse?
Going into this, no one knew what this show was going to be. It took two talented geniuses, like David and Jeanine, to tie ''Soft Power'' altogether. Ever since the first day of rehearsals, Alyse and I have been holding onto each other, and making sure we're confident in everything we're doing. Alyse has been so open and generous with her time and her spirit.
What's next? David tells us he's "confident" "Soft Power" will get to New York. It's a co-commission between Center Theatre Group in L.A. and The Public Theatre, so it seems like it would pop up at the Public in New York and later play Broadway.
I hear that they're making plans, but nothing is set in stone. But from your lips to God's ears.
Of course, you made your big breakthrough at the Public in 2013 in ''Here Lies Love,'' David Byrne's brilliant disco musical about Imelda Marcos. You were "the fabulous one" who played Ninoy Aquino opposite Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda and Jose as Ferdinand Marcos. You won a Theatre World Award and reprised your role last year at Seattle Rep. So will this show get to Broadway?
After Seattle, there seemed to be some momentum, but then it fell through. I just hope it happens in the next few years 'cuz I'm getting too old to do that show. It's so hard jumping up and down those platforms. I can't do that forever. (Laughs.)
In 2014, Out magazine named you and Jose to its list of Out 100. Since then, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance has honored you. But you've said ''the hardest speech I've ever given'' was to Equality California in 2017. Viola Davis, your co-star on ''How to Get Away With Murder,'' had advised: ''It's not talking about your successes that you most connect with people; it's when you let people in and show them your struggles.'' Then, you gave the most moving speech about growing up LGBT in Niceville, Fla.: about getting caught trying to steal a gay-porno tape in a video store. When your classmates found out, they terrorized and ostrasized you for the next three years, calling you a ''faggot'' and treating you like a ''monster.'' And in grad school, you revealed you once ''dragged a blade across my wrist.'' What got you through all of that?
I don't know. It was a really, really dark hole that I had to come out. It's been years of therapy, and it reverberates to this day. I'm still working through the shame. I really curled up in subtle ways, in my spine and in my shoulders, everything to protect my heart. To be invisible. When you collapse into yourself for years, it doesn't just heal overnight. At that time [as a teenager], I was in sports [as a tennis player], and that was the worst place to be. Now, being part of the theater and arts community has healed me so much. It's so accepting. Once I found theater in my 20s, it really helped me to rebuild my trust in friends and the world in general.
The irony is that you were shunned for being gay in high school. But now you're celebrated for being out as an adult. And because your TV character, Oliver, is gay, Asian-American and HIV-positive, you must hear from many fans, especially LGBT teens.
Oh, yeah. Sometimes, I take that for granted. When you're an artist, you don't always want to be a role model. I don't want to label myself or just play characters that move the social-justice meter forward. But I'm proud when I get letters from people who find solace in Oliver. Maybe when they're old enough to move out, they can live more openly. I'm so happy Oliver is doing that for people, and I really feel it's Oliver who's doing it. It's the writers creating these characters, and our show is on ABC. You don't have to subscribe to HBO to see this character who looks and loves like you. I wish I had something like this when I was growing up.
Did you get to see "Love, Simon''? It's Hollywood's first mainstream movie about a gay teen's coming-out.
I did! I did! I just saw it on the airplane a week ago, and I loved it so much. It made me cry. Especially that scene with Simon [played by Nick Robinson] and his mom, Jennifer Garner. It was so great. It was such an inspiring barometer of how far we've come.
After ''Soft Power'' closes on July 8, you fly back to L.A. to start on the fifth season of ''How to Get Away With Murder.'' Entertainment Weekly recently said you deserve an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor: ''Ricamora makes Oliver's constant war between his desire to support his friends (and lover) and abide by his own moral compass electric and visceral.'' Pete Nowalk, the creator of your show, adds: ''I'm a fan of Coliver [Connor and Oliver]. I really like their chemistry. And that's a credit to Jack [Falahee] and Conrad.'' And Jack has posted he's ''so grateful for Conrad in my life.'' What's it been like working with Jack?
Amazing. We have both gone through this process of being on a TV show for the first time together. It has changed our lives. Like being recognized, losing your privacy and dealing with that. It's not something you can be taught. And he's been such a great friend to support all the shows I've done. He saw ''Soft Power'' in L.A. and says it's his favorite thing that he's seen me in, so far.''
Meantime, you, Kelvin Moon Loh and Jeigh Madjus are writing a TV show called "No Rice." It's about gay Asian men looking for love in New York. Does the title refer to the anti-Asian prejudice on gay dating apps that reads: ''No Asians'' or ''No Rice''?
It's exactly that. It's a very in-your-face form of racism that my friends and I have experienced. But there's also the subtle racism that goes on in the gay community and the internalized [self-loathing]. Growing up, we'd seen ourselves unfavorably portrayed in the media, and that made us hate ourselves, so it's about coming to terms with that. We're passionate about it and what we've written. But we're all so busy. Kelvin's in ''SpongeBob'' and Jeigh's in ''Moulin Rouge''; we just have to find the time to shoot it.
Speaking of dating, were those Instagram photos of you and your boyfriend taking a vacation in France?
Yes. It was so great. We went on a Viking Cruise, and it was just the best. I had never been on a cruise before. It was so relaxing.
A couple of Sundays ago, it was Father's Day. Your dad, Ron, was in the U.S. Air Force and raised you as a single parent when you were 7 months old. And as a kid, you once asked him for a Barbie doll and he got it for you. What's his love meant to you?
He's literally my hero. My mom left him when he was 22 with two kids, and he didn't drop us off at an orphanage or give us away. He committed to us and stuck through really hard times. He's just the most amazing person I've ever known.
And you're a proud papa, too ... to Wilbur, your adorable French bulldog. Have you two gotten to sightsee around the Bay Area?
Not yet. But we're looking forward to Muir Woods or Sausalito. Wilbur loves to get into the car and go adventuring.
Finally, does Wilbur enjoy being the top dog backstage at ''Soft Power''?
Omigosh. He LOVES it! At intermission, he knows he gets to visit everyone at their stations, and they shower him with treats.
"Soft Power" plays now through July 8 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets range from $29-$175. For more information, call (415) 358-1220 or visit SFCURRAN.com.