Interview: Francis Jue of TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Hits His Stride by Being True to Himself

Jue makes a return to the Tony-winning company in Mike Lew's trenchant comedy running April 6th to 28th in Mountain View

By: Apr. 02, 2024
Interview: Francis Jue of TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Hits His Stride by Being True to Himself
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Obie Award-winning actor Francis Jue is a shining example of one adage even as he gives the lie to another – slow and steady wins the race, and sometimes nice guys actually finish first. The native San Franciscan swears he never had a plan for how to make a life in the theater. He just kept quietly plugging away, seeking out projects he was drawn to and people he wanted to work with. Now, some 40 years into his career, he finds himself more in demand than ever.

Interview: Francis Jue of TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Hits His Stride by Being True to Himself
          Francis Jue as Dad in Mike Lew's Tiger Style!
                    at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Jue recently completed a highly-praised stint as the Wizard in the deliciously loopy New York revival of Once Upon a Mattress starring Sutton Foster and Harriet Harris and is now returning to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (where he first appeared way back in 1988) in Mike Lew’s razor-sharp “comedy with claws,” Tiger Style! Lew’s satire of "tiger" parenting stars Jue and Emily Kuroda as a married couple whose now 30-something-year-old children find themselves dissatisfied with adult life despite ultra-achievement as kids. Beneath its outrageously comic surface is a probing and trenchant exploration of what it means to be Asian and Asian-American in our world right now.  The San Diego Union-Tribune called the play “a cultural mixmaster of laughs, attitude and insight.”

Jue couldn’t be happier to be returning to TheatreWorks in a play that reunites him with costar Kuroda and the much-in-demand director Jeffrey Lo, both of whom he worked with on TheatreWorks’ production of The Language Archive in 2019. In the intervening time, Jue finished filming his multi-season recurring role as Chinese Foreign Minister Chen on TV’s Madam Secretary while treading the boards in a whole slew of new plays on both coasts. He also earned the rare distinction of being a double Drama Desk Award nominee in the same year for Outstanding Actor in a Musical and Outstanding Actor in a Play for David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Soft Power and Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, respectively.

I spoke with Jue by phone last week shortly after he’d thankfully recovered from a lingering cold. We talked about his prior history with Tiger Style! and why the play is even more relevant than when he appeared in its world premiere in 2016, how much he loves working with Kuroda and Lo, his gratitude to TheatreWorks for their having taken a chance on him back in the late 1980s, and his thoughts on the current status of Asian American theater artists. Throughout, Jue was incredibly gracious, kind, funny and unguarded, but also very clear-eyed. In short, he comes across as sort of an anti-diva who has come to know exactly who he is. He’s also someone who invariably has an interesting and complex response to even the simplest of questions. The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You have quite a history with Tiger Style!

Yes, both Emily Kuroda and I did the original production of the show at the Alliance in Atlanta and that production went to Huntington in Boston as well. When we were at Huntington that coincided with when Hillary Clinton lost the election to Trump, and I remember all of us at the matinee that next day onstage in tears doing the play – but at the same time landing all of our laughs. So I was really proud of us that day! [laughs]

I think that the play is even more relevant now than when we first did it. Post-Trump, Mike Lew has made some surgical changes in the script, partly because it’s a much more active question right now what it means to be American. I think that with so much chaos and division in our politics, in our society, there’s a real struggle between what responsibilities we have as a community, as a nation, and what rights we have as individuals. That struggle is so much more front-of-mind right now. I think that the changes Mike has made clarify what has always been there in the script.

Despite the serious issues the play explores, at the end of the day it is a comedy, right?

Oh, it’s hilarious! I have rarely laughed so much in a rehearsal process.

The last time I interviewed you was for The Language Archive at TheateWorks, another complicated comedy in which you and Emily Kuroda played a married couple.

Yeah, any chance I get to be married to Emily Kuroda I will jump at! Partly because she’s a wonderful friend, and partly because she is truly inspiring. She is brilliant, and her process is open and free and unashamed, and so it inspires all of us to be free and open to new ideas and change. And she’s just a lovely, lovely person, too.

Interview: Francis Jue of TIGER STYLE! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Hits His Stride by Being True to Himself
L to R: Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Francis Jue and Will Dao in 
Mike Lew's Tiger Style! at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Tiger Style! also marks a reunion with the director of that production, Jeffrey Lo.

Yeah, one of the reasons why I wanted to do the play again was because I wanted to experience this play through Jeffrey Lo’s direction and interpretation. When he directed The Language Archive, it wasn’t the first time that the play had been done, and whenever the play had been done before there had been issues with the play. When we did our production, I thought that those issues were addressed and answered in really beautiful ways. With his casting and his direction, he brought a kind of understanding of the humanity, even in difficult people, in difficult situations, that I thought was inspired. And so in this play, which is full of conflicts and really difficult people and flawed characters, I was wondering what Jeffrey’s take on their humanity was, and how that can be both funny and really meaningful at the same time.

That duality certainly came across with The Language Archive, which also had some pretty outrageous comedy that was always grounded in humanity.

Yeah, and I think that even with as wild as some of the humor in Tiger Style! is, Jeffrey is helping us all focus on how human, how truthful that actually is. Human beings can be ridiculous - and they can be obstinate and stupid, and yet there’s a compassion, not just judgment, for these characters in Mike Lew’s script. I certainly recognize myself in a lot of the characters and the situations in this play, and I think it helps us all imagine a better future.  

When I interviewed Jeffrey a few years ago, he told me that at the very first rehearsal for Language Archive, which was his first mainstage production at TheatreWorks, he looked at you and Emily, two people he had admired for quite some time, and thought “I can’t believe they’re in my play!” In the overwhelm of that moment, he said he literally forgot how to be a director, and that you saved the day by very graciously suggesting he might want to share with the cast why he loved the script and why he wanted to do the play before having the cast do a read-through. Do you have any memory of that moment?

[laughs] I don’t, not that moment specifically, but I was an English major in college and so I’ve always approached this craft in terms of the big picture, in terms of the story and what is the reason, not just to do the production right now, but for that play to exist? What was the playwright’s original intention? What is the director’s idea of what the story actually is? Not just the plot, but what it’s for. That’s just what motivates me, and I think it’s helpful for the entire company to have discussions along those lines because it helps us all align in how we function in the play. And it certainly helps me know how to rehearse, because I can keep those ideas in mind. I’m always checking in with those fundamentals in order to tell the story as effectively, as productively, as possible.

You know, I was such a shy kid, I couldn’t talk to people, I was literally down on myself all the time. One of the things that inspired me about live theater was it was an active process of trying to reflect back what was going on in the world, and what’s going on in people right here and now, and it offered an active chance in front of a live audience to have that conversation in ways that when I was a little kid I couldn’t even articulate, but felt really, really deeply.

So – yeah, I think it’s ridiculous that Jeffrey had this feeling about Emily or me, because as far as I’m concerned, we’re just workers. We’re storytellers trying to do the best job possible for him.

For the past several years, we seem to be in this golden age for playwrights of Asian descent actually getting their plays produced. As sort of an OG of Asian actors, what’s it been like for you to not only observe that phenomenon, but also to be an active participant in bringing many of those plays to life?

Well, thank you for lumping me in with OG’s. I had so many OG icon examples - Sab Shimono, Kelvin Han Yee, Rosalind Chao – people that I looked up to and admired and still do, and that were great examples to me of how artists can create a life and how they can continue to work. One of the things I’ve found in the last couple of decades is that working with other artists on original material was much more in line with what motivates me in this business and artform.

I hope that it’s a golden age for Asian and Asian American Playwrights. There certainly are a lot more getting produced now than there ever were, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with a few of them that I’ve continued to work with over time, and I’ve been really grateful because there’s such a range and depth of field among Asian American Playwrights. They’re not all writing about the same thing or in the same way. They’re focused on different things than what was originally produced of Asian American Playwrights, and that’s inspiring. I think it does mean that not just this industry, but our minds have opened up to the possibility that Asians are also part of the human experience and the American experiment, that we’re not just something exotic on the side that we can view from a distance, like we’re on a field trip.

And yet, as much as I’ve observed things changing over the last couple of decades, I still am very aware that there’s a glass ceiling for Asian American Playwrights and Asian American stories. Oftentimes when we talk about diversification of the kinds of things that get produced, it’s very much a binary and Asians aren’t included in either side of that binary.

Are you talking about the Black/white binary?

Yeah. I want as many stories to be told as possible, I want all of them to be given a chance, but also I want them to be given the best chance possible. When we came back from the pandemic and the Broadway League committed to diversifying onstage and backstage, and started announcing plans to produce many more works by African American Playwrights and African American stories, that was great. And yet, I don’t believe that many of those productions were supported in the way that they could have been, or as carefully produced as they could have been to be set up for success.

That said, I also would love the chance for Asian American stories to get told at all in mainstream, commercial ways that we haven’t been given the opportunity for. Things are opening up a little bit now - you know it was announced Yellow Face is finally going to be on Broadway in the fall, there was Here Lies Love, there was KPOP, but I mean when you think of the Asian American stories that have been told on Broadway, you can count them on one hand.  And there’s what - 120, 140 years of Broadway history? So we still have a long way to go.

I feel like we’re still waiting for that first big Asian musical hit or even another popular Asian play. When M. Butterfly made such a splash back in 1988, I thought it might be the start of something new in terms of big, commercial success for Asian-themed plays, but it didn’t really lead to the next Asian hit as far as I can tell.

That’s absolutely true. M. Butterly was brilliant, and John Dexter did an amazing job, and John Lithgow and B.D. Wong and that original company – they were just phe-nom-i-nal! I was floored when I saw it. The staging of it I think has never been topped. It was gorgeous. And you know, at the time, in 1988, it was the most expensive play ever produced on Broadway, which is saying a lot for a first-time playwright, David Henry Hwang. It’s still an astounding accomplishment, but you’re absolutely right, it didn’t lead to, you know, a whole renaissance of Asian American stories being told in a way that reached as many people.

And that said, I think that there is also great work being done anywhere. TheatreWorks, I gotta say at least in my experience, has done phenomenal and diverse and challenging new work, and I’m really, really proud to be asked back there.

TheatreWorks, like every regional theater in the country, has had a bit of a rough ride these past few years coming out of the pandemic, although there are some clear signs that things are improving. Since you’ve done so many plays with the company, can you talk a little about how important TheatreWorks has been to your ability to sustain a career?

Well, when I was first hired by TheatreWorks, I still didn’t believe that I would be making a career in theater, for a number of different reasons. I was hired by them in 1988 as one of their first Equity contracts, in their first production of Pacific Overtures and that was followed up very quickly by being asked to audition for Peter Pan, their holiday show the next season. I’d never imagined playing Peter Pan, I’d never imagined being the Emcee in Cabaret, I’d never thought it would be possible for me to play Molina in Kiss of the Spiderwoman or [Mozart in] Amadeus. Or to do any number of things that TheatreWorks, just in the course of doing business, asked me to do. I never dreamed that anybody would ask me to choreograph a production like Into the Woods.

But they saw potential in me and took a chance, the way that they do with so many artists who I think are not always seen as whole artists, but as people who can do one thing. I couldn’t be more grateful, not just because of the opportunities I’ve been allowed, but because it’s expanded my own expectations of myself. That has given me the confidence to work elsewhere, and to have expectations elsewhere as well, that I might not have had if I hadn’t done 15 prior shows before coming here to do Tiger Style! And it’s not just me. They’ve done that with a lot of people, onstage and backstage, on creative teams and in theater administration.

They’ve had that orientation from the beginning. It’s just who they are, and they’ve worked hard at it. It took them a year to cast that first production of Pacific Overtures because they wanted an all-Asian company and they wanted to develop relationships with Japanese American theater artists so that they had the right resources to do the show the way that they envisioned. At that point, I couldn’t imagine another theater company investing that amount of time and energy and resources into preparing for that one show, that wound up being their introduction to Actors Equity as well.

Certainly, there are other theaters that are trying to do the right thing and trying to challenge themselves artistically, and they’re all having trouble coming out of the pandemic, but I give TheatreWorks a lot of credit for never giving up on their ideals in the process of coming back.

A few years ago, you were nominated for two Drama Desk Awards in the same season, Outstanding Actor in a Play for Cambodian Rock Band and Outstanding Actor in a Musical for Soft Power.

Oh, that’s right – I’d forgotten about that!

That was quite a feat! Do you have any theories as to why this level of acknowledgement is coming to you now, after years in the business? At an age when many actors start finding opportunities harder to come by, it feels like you’re just hitting your stride.

Yeah. I do feel like this last decade I’ve hit my stride, and it’s not coincidental that it’s happened at the same as this confidence I’ve gained because of the kinds of things that I’ve been working on, and getting older. When I was first ever nominated in New York for something, it was for Yellow Face at The Public Theatre. I had had a long history of helping David Henry Hwang with readings when he was developing the play and then was not invited to do the show in LA. But then I got invited to do it in New York, so it was a very humbling but also exhilarating time for me and I just threw everything that I knew how to do into doing that play. I felt vulnerable and unguarded, and I remember getting nominated for that and walking down the street in my neighborhood and a critic passed me. I knew who he was, but I didn’t know he knew who I was – but as he passed me, he pointed at me and congratulated me and said “We’ve had our eye on you for a long time. This is well deserved.” And I just couldn’t believe it – that was astonishing to me that anybody had noticed.

I think that I’ve been lucky, and I just stuck it out. At that point, I had been in New York working off and on for close to 25 years. I’d been, you know, spear carriers in Shakespeare plays and I’d been on the road with M Butterfly and I’d played large parts in regional theaters and done teeny little things on episodic TV. So the fact that people had connected those dots and kept track of me during that time was a whole new concept to me, because I had just been plugging away. I hadn’t been trying to design a career, as much as scrounging around to do work that I wanted to do.

I think maybe part of the difference was I had a very early experience of being really, really unhappy in a play that I didn’t like doing and that for lots of different reasons offended me, so I committed after that to never doing it again. It cost too much for me to do something where I didn’t feel like I was contributing, wasn’t being helpful and at the same time I was ashamed to be seen in. So I had to start thinking in terms of what is it that I do value doing? It’s not always being a star or being the lead. It can be a very small part, but as long as it offers maybe an opportunity to explore the humanity of that character, even if that character is onstage for five minutes in the play, then that’s worth doing. Even if it’s a servant, even if it’s somebody with an accent, it offers audiences an opportunity to understand this is a human being who has an accent, this is a human being who is delivering my food. And that really excited me.

I guess without really articulating that to myself, I’ve been focusing less on how I’m being perceived than on what I want to do. When I audition best it’s because I have an agenda, I want to show them how I work. I go in and say, “This is how I would work. It may not be ultimately how we portray this role, but this is how I’m thinking of the role right now, before having worked with you and talked with you about the show.” If I’m excited about that, then more often than not, I get a second chance at showing them. You know sometimes I screw up because at the callback I start to think “Ooh, I might get this!” [laughs] I start wondering what it is that they’re thinking, what did they like at the first one? And I inevitably tank the callback because I get nervous about how I’m being perceived, instead of just going in and saying, “Here’s a theory, here’s a draft. It may not comport with your draft, but here’s what I’m thinking right now, based on the three pages you gave me.”

So – maybe that’s the difference. I don’t know. Also you get older and you start feeling like you’re allowed to say what you think and people will at least tolerate it, you know? [laughs]

And if you’ve shown them who you are and what your approach is and they don’t like it, then it probably isn’t really the right job for you anyhow.

Yeah, and sometimes you go in and you’re like “Oh, I don’t want to work with these people.” Introducing yourself to them is also a chance for you to figure out what they’re interested in, and maybe it doesn’t align with what you would want to do. [laughs] I remember going in once and it was just an interview and the director was like “So how do you see this role?” and I started telling them, “I’ve always wanted to play this role because I’ve always wanted to work on this relationship in the play.” And the director was like “Huh. I’ve never seen it that way.” And I knew right then and there, I was like “OK, this is not the production that this director wants to do.” So go do your production because I know that if I were there, I’d be miserable, and I’d always be asking for things that weren’t gonna happen.

One of your most recent projects was the City Center Encores Once Upon a Mattress

Oh, yeah – that was great fun.

- which reunited you with Sutton Foster and Harriet Harris, with whom you did Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway.

And Cheyenne Jackson!

So what was it like being back onstage with them some 20+ years after Millie?

Omigod, 20+ years indeed, and they’re still frickin’ brilliant. I mean, they’re just astonishing, astonishing people, and actors. Watching them work was still astonishing to me, and being able to play with them in English this time was really fun. Learning how to do magic from the brilliant, multi-hyphenate artist Skylar Fox was also thrilling and terrifying at the same time. That they trusted me with, you know, fire onstage was just astonishing to me. [laughs] But I had a great time.

At the same time, I did not know Once Upon a Mattress before I got the offer, and I kept saying to myself the entire time “What am I doing here? Why did they ask me?!” [laughs] Again, I had to get over the question of what were they thinking, and start imagining what it is that I think about the Wizard and his relationship to the Queen and the court and to the Princess. So I came up with my own ideas, and [director] Lear DeBesonnet just embraced who I am, which was generous and lovely.

Well, clearly your approach to the role worked because you received terrific reviews.

Really?! Oh, that’s nice. I’m afraid I don’t read reviews. I’m still too insecure, so I try to content myself with my own opinions.  

Given the great reception it got, is there any word whether Mattress might have a future life?

There is word… I’m not allowed to say anything, so that’s all I’ll say. [laughs]

You have such a lengthy and eclectic resume –

Thank you.

So if I were to ask you which performance on your resume brought you the most joy, just personally as an actor, what comes to mind? I realize that’s sort of an impossible question to answer.

Oh, wow … that’s really hard because so many things that I’ve done have meant so much to me in so many different ways. Sometimes something was really special just because my parents got to see it. Sometimes something was really special because it meant a lot of personal growth. Sometimes it meant a lot to me because it was a real watershed moment where a lot of people got to see it and so it mattered in terms of future opportunities or a different understanding of what I was capable of doing. Other things were really special to me because I survived – you know I was able to do it and I didn’t kill myself doing it.

One of the first things that kind of pops into my head, though, is Cambodian Rock Band. It was certainly physically and emotionally challenging representing a character based on an actual mass murdering war criminal. But what really I loved about playing that part was, as much as he was an unreliable narrator and a trickster, he was also ultimately – surprise, surprise! – just a normal human being. He was a math teacher, a father, a guy that you wouldn’t notice on the street. He was very much like any of us – but was capable of something incredibly destructive and was able to rationalize that to himself.

In our current world where we’re all being challenged by disinformation and forces that seem so much out of our control, he was somebody who decided to figure out a way to do what he did. And I think that that’s a cautionary tale for me and for all of us. It’s one of the things I think I am most proud of working on because it was that complicated and that simple at the same time.

(all photos by Reed Flores)

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Tiger Style! runs April 6-28, 2024 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View. For tickets and additional information visit TheatreWorks.org or call 877-662-8978.




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