By: Julia Cho
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Jeffrey Lo
Featuring: Francis Jue, Emily Kuroda, Jomar Tagatac, Elena Wright, and Adrienne Kaori Walters
When: July 10-August 4, 2019
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $30-$100 (discounts available; prices subject to change). Visit theatreworks.org/201920-season/the-language-archive or call 650-463-1960.
1988/89: "Peter Pan"
1992/93 and 2006/07: "M. Butterfly"
1997/98: "Kiss of the Spiderwoman"
1999/2000: "As Bees in Honey Drown"
2000/01: "Floyd Collins"
2001/02: "Pacific Overtures" (co-choreographer)
2005/06: "Into the Woods" (also choreographer)
2009/10: "Yellow Face"
2015/16: "tokyo fish story"
2019/20: "The Language Archive"
his deep-down voice
Francis Jue has had a tremendously successful career as an actor, starring in and winning awards for his theater work in New York and around the nation, and appearing in more than a dozen TV shows and movies.
But perhaps his deepest and longest lasting journey as an actor began at TheatreWorks in 1988, when he was cast in the 1988 production of “Pacific Overtures.”
Since then he’s been part of 15 productions at what is now TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, including “The Language Archive,” which opened in previews on Wednesday, and has its opening on Saturday.
But no only has he had a long and mutually pleasing relationship with TheatreWorks on stage — it was during that 1988 run of “Pacific Overtures” that he met Randy Adams, who was managing director of TheatreWorks at the time.
“A month into the relationship we became an old married couple,” said Jue, in a recent phone conversation. “We’ve been together over 31 years.”
Adams was managing director at TheatreWorks from 1984 to 2006, but left after he “discovered that his driving passion was developing new musicals,” said Jue. Adams and his three partners created Junkyard Dog Productions in New York. The company developed, among others, “Memphis,” which had some of its earliest performances at TheatreWorks, before going on to win Tony and other awards on Broadway. The company’s current Broadway show is “Come From Away.”
After being together 30 years, Jue and Adams finally got married, on their anniversary, in Manhattan, where they live.
Jue told Lia Chang of Backstage Pass: “Randy Adams and I have been together for 30 years. We didn’t get engaged until marriage was legal all across the country. For me personally, I didn’t want to get married and have it taken away. I didn’t want to be married in one state and go to work in another state where I wasn’t married. So we waited.” Read that interview.
Jue is well aware that this is the 50th, and last, season of TheatreWorks with founder Robert Kelley as artistic director. After this season, someone else will hold that post (a search is underway), and Kelley will concentrate, theater-wise, on what he loves best: Directing shows.
TheatreWorks “has a national reputation as an incubator of new shows,” Jue said, “and for rethinking older works, focusing on the humanity of these stories.
“Even when a show hasn’t been successful (elsewhere), TheatreWorks will succeed in re-examining the piece in terms of humanity, and in having an optimism about human potential. I hope the next 50 years continues that.
“Over these 50 years, Kelley has had to be an administrator, and had to be an artist as well. His artistic vision was part of the culture of the management of the company.” Jue said he likes that TheatreWorks “sees lots of different kinds of people as people.
“The second show I did for TheatreWorks was “Peter Pan,” in 1989. I don’t recall anyone objecting to the fact that an Asian was Peter Pan. They didn’t question that I was Peter Pan. The goal in theater is for strangers to come together and have a common, human experience.
“I will just say that I would not be the artist I am today without the opportunities and leadership that Kelley and TheatreWorks have provided.”
Jue — who is a charming and intelligent conversationalist, and who laughs easily — has also played specifically Asian roles at TheatreWorks, such as in David Henry Hwang’s brilliant “Yellow Face,” in 2009. That play was inspired by the fight over a white man, Jonathan Pryce, wearing bronze makeup to play an Asian in “Miss Saigon.” Pryce had originated the role in London, but when the show was brought to New York, Asian-American actors and Actors Equity Association objected to Pryce coming with it, and a fight erupted.
Eventually, Pryce was allowed to do the show on Broadway, where it was very successful, and Hwang wrote “Yellow Face,” which is smart, serious and very funny.
“‘Yellow Face’ is also about how Asian people are regarded in life, as well as in media,” said Jue, who played several roles in the play. “I think that even when we have been cast, I think Asian people are often seen as representative of an exotic culture.
“When people see Asians on stage, or in other media, we are often times not regarded as human beings first. We’re seen as representatives of a far away culture. One of the tasks I have to achieve (as an actor) before someone can identify with the story, is to prove that this character is a human being. When people see ‘The Crucible’ (about the Salem witch trials, an allegory for McCarthyism), they relate to the story, see these people as human beings ... they don’t assume all white people are crazy witch hunters.
“But, when people see Asian people, they often assume that is how all Asian people are. We still have to cope with that today.”
The TheatreWorks show Jue is in at the moment is "The Language Archive," by Julia Cho.
“It has so much to contemplate,” Jue said. “Julia is an amazing writer. She incorporates love in her writing, and her sense of humor — I get her sense of humor, the sense of how ridiculous and beautiful human relationships can be at the same time.”
According to a TheatreWorks press release, “The quirky comedy tells the whimsical, life-affirming chronicle of a linguist fighting to preserve the dying languages of far-flung cultures, only to neglect the promise and passion of his own.”
Jomar Tagatac, in his TheatreWorks debut, plays George, the linguist.
Jue and Emily Kuroda (last seen at TheatreWorks in “Calligraphy” in 2017) play Resten and Alta, a couple who are the last speakers of a dying language.
“I am so happy to be reunited with Emily Kuroda,” Jue said. “We were the married couple in ‘Tiger Style!’ (Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2015). We have a nice chemistry. I think she is one of the most brilliant comedic actresses I’ve ever seen, and she also can break your heart.”
The comedy in “The Language Archive” is “recognizable,” said Jue, “because audience members and I see ourselves in the relationships that are the source of the comedy in the play.”
This is Jue’s first time working with director Jeffrey Lo, although they have known each other for some time. Lo has worn many hats at TheatreWorks and other Bay Area theater companies.
“I’ve always been impressed by Jeffrey’s energy, and his appreciation of his relationships with people. He has this huge, boisterous laugh. I’m really impressed by how gentle he is with us — plus, by how smart he is. He’ll plant one seed, and it becomes a whole garden in rehearsal. … He sees opportunities, and is good at unlocking those clues in rehearsal.”
Jue was raised in the Richmond District of San Francisco, No. 6 of nine in a Chinese-American family, living in a mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood.
“We were a ready-made baseball team,” Jue said. “We played a lot of sports growing up. The family was a wonderful, ready-made community, but it also was hard to individuate. Each of us had to really claim our space. I’m really grateful to my family now. I rely on them emotionally, quite a bit.”
Jue said he does not speak or read Chinese, which is “one of the reasons why ‘The Language Archive’ is so meaningful to me.
“My parents’ first language was Cantonese, although they were born and raised in China Town in San Francisco.
“There is something about the loss of language, the limits of language, that ‘The Language Archive’ explores. When my father developed Alzheimer’s, he began very slowly to lose the ability of understand or speak. His Cantonese remained longer. There are certain things you can only say in certain languages, things that are closest to our hearts. For him, that was Cantonese.”
The first live musical Jue saw was a high school production of “The King and I.” His brother Geoff played the prince.
“I was very shy, had trouble talking to other people,” said Jue, “but this world on stage was immediately recognizable. I knew that was where I wanted to spend my life.”
He was 12 years old.
At St. Ignatius College Preparatory, he was in the chorus of “My Fair Lady,” and when he went to college — getting his B.A. in English from Yale — he did more shows. A friend was playing audition piano for “Pacific Overtures,” and asked him to audition. He did, and in 1984 began his professional career in New York, commuting by train to and from school.
He joined Actors’ Equity, but “still didn’t think I could do theater as a living. I went back to school, kept doing shows. Had a job at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Then a casting director, Meg Simon, asked me to audition as an understudy for ‘M. Butterfly.’ I’ve been working as an actor ever since. I still can’t quite believe it.”
Jue has also done quite a bit of work on television shows, including “about 20 episodes, over five years, for ‘Madam Secretary.’
“I feel really fortunate, really lucky, that I’ve had artistic homes and champions, like Robert Kelley and TheatreWorks, who have made a really conscious effort at inclusion, who never shied away from rethinking shows, and so have given me opportunities I would not have been given otherwise. Roles that don’t call for Asian actors.”
Even after his many successes on Broadway, off-Broadway, in touring shows and at companies such as TheatreWorks, Jue said he for some time “didn’t think it was possible for me to make a living as an actor. I wasn’t sure if the industry could support an Asian American actor in that way. I wasn’t sure I had what it took.
“Most actors think, deep down, there is something unique in them. Because I hadn’t studied acting, I wasn’t sure that I knew how to express that voice. My career is one long lesson in learning to use that voice.”