Francis Jue distinguishes himself as Hwang’s father, Henry Y. Hwang, who founded Far East National Bank, the first Asian American-owned federally chartered bank in the continental United States. Jue’s moving and heartfelt portrayal of HYH — a successful, charismatic Chinese American banker who sees himself as equal parts Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra in pursuit of the American Dream Hollywood style, but after he is accused of laundering money for the Chinese, subsequently loses faith in the American system – has been earning the consummate actor rave reviews.
The San Francisco native made his New York stage debut in Steven Sondheim and John Weidman’s PACIFIC OVERTURES in 1984, appeared on Broadway in Hwang’s M. BUTTERFLY in 1988 and originated the role of Bun Foo in THROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE(2002). No stranger to accolades, he received San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Awards for his star turns in the TheatreWorks productions of CABARET and RED; for his acting and choreography on INTO THE WOODS and PACIFIC OVERTURES, and a DramaLogue Award playing Molina in KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN. Equally at
home in a play or a musical, he’s played the title roles in AMADEUS and the THE KING AND I opposite Debby Boone, and has worked at the Public Theater in THE TRAGEDY OF RICHARD II, Chay Yew’s A LANGUAGE OF THEIR OWN, KING LEAR, TIMON OF ATHENS, PERICLES, HAMLET AND THE WINTER’S TALE. Television audiences may be familiar with him as Dr. Fong on Law & Order: SVU and Dr. Yamagachi on One Life to Live.
“Francis is a brilliant actor of immense integrity and sensitivity. From the Emcee to Mozart, from Song Liling to the King of Siam, his work has a range that is truly astonishing. He’s a wonderfully open-hearted collaborator as well, a great man of the theatre,” enthused TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley.
It’s been a wild year for the actor who has had the opportunity to stretch in diverse roles. At ACT in San Francisco, he played Mr. Oji, a Japanese American accountant in Philip Kan Gotanda’s new play AFTER THE WAR and for his role, he was named part of a “Favorite Couple” for his performance along with Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Chad Jone’s most distinctive theater moments of 2007 list on insidebayarea.com.
In New York at the Vineyard Theater, Francis played Dr. Mendel, a Jewish American psychiatrist in the all Asian American NAATCO production of William Finn’s FALSETTOLAND during the Asian American Theater Festival. He soared as Peter Pan at the Muny in St. Louis, and then returned to the New York Fringe Festival to play a Chinese American father in Kevin So’s very contemporary musical VICTOR WOO: THE AVERAGE ASIAN AMERICAN.
YELLOW FACE is his most challenging project to date. Each night he puts his special stamp on playing HYH, BD Wong, Bernie Jacobs, New York Post, Joe Papp, Pravda, actor Rodney Hatamiya, a militant student, Boston Globe, Michael Riedel, a patron at a porn shop, a dancer in the KING AND I, a reporter, Margaret Cho, a protester at an Asian American rally and Wen Ho Lee.
On casting Francis, Hwang related, “We’ve known each other since he was in the original Broadway production of BUTTERFLY, and starred in two of the national tours. He read the part of HYH in one of the early readings, and I thought he was fantastic, though my initial impression was that he was too young for the part. He then generously agreed to do the Stanford workshop, despite the fact that we’d already cast Tzi Ma to do the role in LA. When Tzi couldn’t commit to follow the show to NY, we were thrilled to go back to Francis, particularly because we had learned that, given the mockdocumentary style of the piece, my earlier concerns about his age were no longer relevant. He has been a treasure to this production, not only in the role of HYH, but also in his chameleon-like ability to brilliantly capture the numerous other characters he’s asked to portray.”
Over noodles before an evening performance of YELLOW FACE, Francis talked about family, his life in the theater and his favorite roles.
Where did you grow up?
Francis: I grew up in San Francisco. I loved it. I had a really great childhood. I feel like I grew up in a way that was really good for me because I was a very shy kid and was sort of terrorized by the idea of actually having to talk to people. I was a very timid child but I loved to perform. There were aspects of all different kinds of performance that I took very seriously from the very beginning, including church. My earliest memory of what I wanted to be was Elvis Presley. I thought I’d love to be that free and confident. That changed to other kinds of heroes in the movies. It’s one of the reasons why I love Henry so much, because something as silly as idolizing movie stars and pop culture, American culture the way that he does, I really relate to. I went to a high school, St. Ignatius Prep., that had a really great drama program, and learned in an environment that wasn’t just about show business. It was about theater as a spiritual exercise.
Did you do plays in high school?
Francis: I was in the chorus of musicals because I was too afraid to speak. I couldn’t audition with a script. When I was little, I loved to sing and dance. So I auditioned for the chorus of musicals. My very first show in high school was MY FAIR LADY. I was in the ensemble. I played an orphan in OLIVER. I did a theater revue of different music from shows called MUSICAL THEATER WORKS that our high school drama teacher put together. The program in high school was really about discipline, about approaching the work not just as a craft, but as a social and spiritual exercise. The vast majority of what I learned about how to approach acting, I learned in high school. I think that I’ve had to approach most of the work that I’ve done from the point of view of finding what I have in common with what I think the show is saying, and fulfilling my role in delivering that story, that message. It’s all about meaning. Like religion is all about meaning, it’s about interpretation, it’s about understanding the world, or understanding ourselves, or finding the framework just to cope with the world. That’s how I’ve approached performing ever since high school.
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Francis: I grew up in the Richmond district. It was a very Irish Catholic neighborhood when I was growing up. There weren’t that many Asian American families there at that time, so a lot of my friends were Irish American. I was very aware of being different. Half the time at home we were eating Chinese food. I knew they weren’t doing that at other homes. I was both very alienated from the neighborhood I was growing up in and in a weird way sheltered within that neighborhood.
Where are you in the lineup of your siblings?
Francis: I have eight brother and sisters. I’m number six. Chinese and Catholic. It was a fertile combination, at least for my parents Frank and Jennie Jue.
What did your parents do?
Francis: My father was an engineer for the Navy for many years. And my mother was a great stay-at-home mom until enough of us were at school, so she could start working at a bank.
Why did you choose to go to Yale?
Francis: It had a great English Lit program. It was not UC Berkeley where most of my other brothers and sisters were. It was away from home. I wanted to strike out on my own. It also had a great theater program. I wanted to continue doing theater on the sly. I knew that I couldn’t major in it because my parents said that I would be disowned if I did. But I thought I could still do it on the side and I could figure out what to do with an English Degree later.
Had you been to the East Coast before?
Francis: I visited during Spring break to check out the schools, using a lot of my saved up money. I and three friends came to the East Coast to check out schools, see shows in New York and basically fool around. Everyone that I met from Yale was weird and quirky and odd, and there was something about that I thought I could fit into.
How did you get your start in the performing arts, professionally?
Francis: One of the people I met, while I was at Yale, graduated and was the audition pianist for the revival of PACIFIC OVERTURES that happened in 1984. They were having trouble finding the Boy in the Tree. He looked me up, back at Yale, and asked me if I would take the train in from Yale to audition. I did and I got that part and the Dutch admiral and one of the British sailors. Suddenly, I was in a show in New York with stuff of mine own to do and say.
I almost didn’t do it because I was in the senior thesis of someone else at Yale. She has gone on to become a big director and writer herself. But at the time, she was about to graduate from Yale, and had written this piece that I was in the chorus of. We had only just started rehearsals. I went to her and told her I was going to quit because I had this great opportunity doing a show in New York. She tried to convince me not to take the job in New York and do her show. I remember her saying that I wasn’t ready. That she didn’t want me to embarrass myself. That if I stayed with her show, she would give me a line that I could sing by myself and be the dance captain. And I was inclined to believe her. I called another friend of mine who has gone on to become a great composer on Broadway and he said, “Are you crazy? Call New York and tell them yes, and I’ll tell you how to talk to so and so about turning down her show.”
I wound up commuting between school and New York to do PACIFIC OVERTURES surrounded by a group of Asian American artists who couldn’t have been more loving and talented, and couldn’t have been more generous with this upstart kid who knew nothing about what he was doing, just throwing it all out there. I learned a lot from them.
Who was in the cast?
Francis: Ernie Abuba, Tom Ikeda, Tom Matsusaka, Tim Ewing, John Baray, John Bantay, Timm Fujii and so many others. It was a lovely, lovely company. And eventually it got picked up by the Shuberts and Liz McCann and it got transferred to The Promenade. We ran for a few months and then I went back for my senior year of college after that. I thought I’d never become a professional actor.
After college, I got a job at the San Francisco Aids Foundation and was thinking about getting an MPA or an MPH and work in the nonprofit sector and use my English Lit Degree to help write grants and educational materials, health education that kind of stuff. Meg Simon gave me a call to audition for her, because they were looking for a new understudy for M. BUTTERFLY. She came to San Francisco, I read for her, she gave me some notes and I didn’t hear from her for six months.
Six months later she said, “B.D. has decided he is going to be leaving the show, he’s told us when, can you come in for a callback?” Who’s paying? I’m just a secretary in a nonprofit. So she got the producer to pay, fly me out to New York, put me up in a hotel, give me a ticket to see the show the night before my audition, so I knew they were serious about me. I went to the audition, auditioning on the stage of the Eugene O’Neill and just praying, conjuring up every actor that every worked on that stage to give me the strength. I remember reading and really focusing on all the notes that Meg had given me from my first audition in SF, and at the end of my read, she told me that she really appreciated that I had worked on those things. I thought it was really sweet. I’ll never forget when the producer asked me whether I could do the Beijing opera. And honestly having seen it, I didn’t think I could. Before I could say anything, David spoke up for me. And he said, “Of course Stuart, look at all his dance credits on his resume. Of course he can do it.” To this day, I’m grateful for David for sticking up for me, for really speaking out for a lot of us over the long haul. So that’s when I gave up my day job. Ever since then I’ve tried to do it as long as it would have me.
And it’s been having you a very long time. Let’s talk about the variety of different roles you’ve had in just the last twelve months.
Francis: Last year I started the year at ACT in San Francisco, doing a new play by Philip Kan Gotanda called AFTER THE WAR, playing a Japanese American accountant who had been released from the internment camps and repatriated back in San Francisco. Then I played Doctor Mendel in FALSETTOLAND, here in town, a showcase in the Asian American Theater Festival. Then I played Peter Pan at the Muny in St. Louis, and then I played a Chinese American father in VICTOR WOO: THE AVERAGE ASIAN AMERICAN at the Fringe Festival, and now this, YELLOW FACE. It’s been a wild year of all sorts of different kinds of roles, I’ve had to really stretch this year. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been really lucky all my career.
And coming back to the Public, doing this show at the Public. The Public took a chance on me years ago. I’d never even auditioned for a Shakespeare play, and suddenly I had an audition for (THE TRAGEDY OF) RICHARD II at the Public. Jordan Thaler brought me in early one morning. My agents had called me the day before and said, “You have to have two contrasting monologues.” I didn’t have two contrasting monologues. So I stayed up all night reading all sorts of plays. And I picked Edmund from LEAR and Benedick from MUCH ADO. I didn’t get a wink of sleep that night. I memorized both of them by the next morning and I did them for Jordan. He asked me to try them each a different way. I was really open to that because I hadn’t had time to settle into one way of doing either of these monologues. And suddenly I’m in a Shakespeare play directed by Steven Berkoff.
Who do you play in YELLOW FACE?
Francis: I play BD Wong, Bernie Jacobs, New York Post, Joe Papp, Pravda, Henry Hwang, Rodney Hatamiya, a militant student, Boston Globe, Michael Riedel, a patron at a porn shop, a dancer in the KING AND I, a reporter, Margaret Cho, a protester at an Asian American rally, Wen Ho Lee.
This show is so incredibly challenging and yet every single night before the show, I can’t wait to get out there. I just feel like it’s tapping into so many different ways of challenging me that I really look forward to it every night. There is so much of this show that I relate to, that at its heart I think part of the struggle in the show is the need to be an individual, the desire to distinguish yourself from everyone else, and at the same time to be a part of something, a community, of a movement, of a family. Every single one of the characters in this play has this struggle going on where they want somehow to distinguish themselves-want to be an adult, want to be a star, want to be a role model. And at the same time they want to be a part of something larger than themselves. That struggle in each one of these characters is both entertaining when they collide with one another, those two impulses, but also incredibly moving. It’s something that I struggled with for a very long time.
Of all the roles that you’ve done, do you have any particular favorites?
Francis: This one in YELLOW FACE, not just playing Henry, but the whole track is one of my favorites.
I think that roles like the King in the KING AND I, just give back so much. I could get really spoiled with as much as the King gives back.
Playing Song Liling in M. BUTTERFLY is another highlight because it is so hard and at the same time so easy to slip into if you let it.
I played Peter Pan 20 years ago, and then playing him again, I feel like I had a better idea how to do it, as old as I am, as rickety as I am. There was something about playing Peter Pan as someone who has had the opportunity to grow up. And to learn about sad things in the world. And to learn about separation, but just denying it, as opposed to someone who has never dealt with it at all. That was really compelling coming back to the show again.
The Emcee in CABARET is also a favorite of mine. I love how seductive that show is. As ugly as it all is, it lures you in and it makes you feel comfortable, and then it twists the knife. Playing that character really helped me learn about what it’s like to lose your inhibitions. Not to measure out every aspect of your performance, but to trust that you know who you are, trust that you are enough, and not because I think that everyone is right for every character, but that if you truly understand how the potential of that character’s capacity for good or evil is exactly your capacity, that you have just as much potential of doing everything this character does and feels and thinks, there’s a certain amount of freedom.
What was your process for creating the character of Henry?
Francis: I purposely didn’t ask David very much about his real dad because the responsibility of playing the father of someone I admire so much, the idea of trying to imitate somebody who is real was not productive for me, it was very inhibiting. So I decided to approach him as a character, I read and reread the script for clues, being an English Lit major really helps in those terms because it helps me take little details about how something is written and turn them into a rationale for the character’s history, the character’s past, the character’s way of expressing himself, for censoring himself, little clues as to how a character feels about himself.
And then I was encouraged a lot during rehearsals to really explore the alpha male aspects of this part, and those aren’t qualities or an orientation that come naturally to me. So I really had to come up with models for alpha males that were appropriate for Henry. There were men and women in my family that I drew on for that. People who had the same experience as Henry’s, of having articulated for themselves the American dream and actually achieved it, as opposed to somebody who sees those dreams as a goal to be achieved far off in the distance. People who actually worked their asses off and did it. I was never prouder than when David’s mother came to see the show. After she saw the show for the first time, she gave me a big hug, and she said that I had a lot of soul as an actor, and that that soul really captured what Henry was all about. That made me very proud.
Can you describe Henry?
Francis: He’s a self made man, he’s a bottom-line guy, he dreams big and doesn’t concern himself with the details. He shoots from the hip. He’s a quintessential manager, he sees the world in black and white. When he walks into a room, there’s barely enough oxygen for anyone else because he is the life of the party. He loves his family deeply and because of how much he loves them, is tough on them, because he expects so much of them. Ultimately in the end I think of him as a child in many ways, both because he’s impulsive, but also because he’s innocent. I don’t think naïve, I think innocent because he has chosen to have faith.
Did David give you any clues?
Francis: Very early on, one of the first things David asked me was if I would stand up straight. I had been focused on the age of this character. So I was a little hunched over, a little bent. When he asked me to stand up straight, it was a huge clue to this man. I didn’t just stand up straight, I attempted to characterize a man, who even as he was getting older willed himself to be taller than he was because he was that ambitious, and that proud. David once said that he loved watching through the course of rehearsals how I was releasing my inner alpha male. It’s not how I present myself in real life at all. It’s been fun indulging in that side of myself. David’s been very kind to me about playing his dad. I’ve really tried to focus not on the outward aspects of this man, but the life that he lived. What better way to convince people that I’m DHH’s father than to focus on what the relationship is like and has been, and then the rest of it will take care of itself.
David has said that he realized pretty late in the process that he was writing a tribute to his father. I interpret that to mean not just his father’s dreams and ambitions and what he achieved, but the fact that this wasn’t just a character in a play, an image or a role model, that he was just a man. In spite of, or maybe because of everything, he had figured some things out. That gave him reason to hope throughout his life. I’m not sure that you can do any better than that. I think that’s a really cool thing.
When you grow up a lot of times you think, metaphorically you have to kill your parents, you have to see the world as something other than what your parents believed the world was. I’m finding that once you’ve experienced some of that world yourself, you start realizing what your parents did have going on, and you come back to what it was your parents may have dreamed as young people and what they accomplished in you as much as anything else, and realize that they really figured some things out. That’s why I’m having such a great time with the show.
Performances for YELLOW FACE run through Sunday, January 13th in Martinson Hall at the Public Theater. The performance schedule is Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesdays thru Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 3 PM and 7 PM.
The Public Theater is located at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are $50 with student tickets available in advance, at the box office only, for $25 (1 per ID). There are a limited number of Rush Tickets sold an hour before curtain at every performance available to the general public (Two per person, $20 each, cash only).
To purchase tickets, call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.
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