Conrad Ricamora Reflects on a Season That Said Good-Bye to Power and Murder
By: Iris Wiener
May 26, 2020: The Public Theater’s Soft Power closed in 2019, but David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s story left such an impact on its audiences that it has now been nominated for eleven Drama Desk Awards. Conrad Ricamora, a beloved performer known for his award-winning turn as Aquino in Here Lies Love and his ground-breaking, heartfelt work as Oliver on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, nagged one of the Drama Desk’s nods for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical. As Soft Power’sChinese movie producer Xūe Xíng, Ricamora’s talent was on full display; he sang, danced, and even charmed Hilary Clinton in the farcical yet poignant “play in a musical.” On the eve of How to Get Away with Murder’s final episode, Ricamora spoke with Theaterlife about saying goodbye to the show that made him a television star, and Soft Power’s continued resonance and emotional impact.
Theaterlife: Soft Power has more 2020 Drama Desk nominations than any other show this year. What does that say about the impression it made on people?
Conrad Ricamora: Right now it feels especially amazing because [Soft Power] is all about Asian Americans and the hate that they experience in this country. That’s happening right now in a really magnified way, so it means a lot that the show is being recognized amongst all of the racism that Asian Americans are experiencing with the coronavirus. It’s about questioning whether democracy, our system of government, and our way of living is the best. We are the hot spot in the world for this virus. Other Asian countries have gotten it under control. I remember watching the documentary Waiting for Superman, and it said we are so far behind other developed countries in so many aspects, but we are number one in one way: confidence (laughs).
TL: What was your first reaction upon reading the script for Soft Power? Due to its complexity, did you have many questions?
CR: It was really scary to read at first because I didn’t know how or if it would work. Also, to have Hillary Clinton as a character singing and dancing is a really bold choice, because people have such strong thoughts and feelings connected to her. I was worried that we were not going to be able to keep it grounded, but it’s a testament to [director] Leigh Silverman that she was really honest and kept everything connected to truth. It wasn’t until we opened in L.A. two years ago that I was like, “Oh, I’m starting to see the show, I get it.” But I was really scared at first.
TL: On paper its description makes it seem almost farcical.
CR: Every night in the theater when we were doing the show we were constantly playing with that balance. It’s a tightrope to walk. That’s something they were feeling out early on in the creation of the show: Is this farcical or is it grounded? Where is it farcical and where is it grounded?
TL: It’s a hard show to describe in a nutshell. Your own description of it must have changed over time.
CR: At one point I think I was saying it’s a fever dream of American ideology and the idea of love. There was also some point where I was talking about how it takes place after David [Henry Hwang, on whom the lead character is based] gets stabbed and he kind of goes into a fever dream musical. At one point we were also saying it was a reverse The King and I because that has such a built in audience. Every night when the orchestra was revealed and they played the overture for Soft Power, it was a thrilling experience. It was the same feeling I got when I was actually doing The King and I and the overture would start; Jeanine insisted on having a really full orchestra the way we had for the production of The King and I at Lincoln Center. That’s the only thing I can compare it to in my history, is that feeling that it moves you so much with the swell of a huge orchestra. I stopped describing it to people because it’s so complex that it just has to be experienced. I think it’s better that way, to go in with no expectations and to be surprised. Then you’re a little more open to what you’ll experience.
TL: Do you remember the specific moment when you felt that you were able find your way into the character of Xūe Xíng?
CR: It wasn’t until I got on stage with an audience. I’m starting to realize more and more that in a rehearsal room you’re refining something so much, and the people that are in the room have seen it so many times, so it’s all about cutting away a part of the sculpture until you get it out in front of an audience. The rehearsal room is such a punishing experience to me because you’re not really doing it for people who are coming to experience it, you’re doing it for people who are just there to critically tell you what they think and help mold it. It wasn’t until we got in front of an audience for the first time that I started feeling their energy with me and I really felt it was landing. The theater is so hard, you’re always working with not a lot of resources, there’s so many risks involved to make a show, there’s always a little bit of fear there. You have to harness that fear and put it into work.
TL: In which ways were you able to see yourself in Xūe?
CR: I have a really strong connection with my dad. My mom left when I was really young and my dad raised me by himself until he remarried when I was 8 years old. My dad is from the Philippines. There is something about Asian parents that are from Asia…there is this honor that is instilled in them, and there is respect and reverence. I grew up in America, and I am very Amerian in so many ways, but I referenced that aspect of my dad in playing Xūe. I also just turned 41 and I’ve never really had a long term relationship. In the same way that Xūestruggled to find real love with another human being, I’ve also struggled. I can sympathize with him on that front. It’s hard to open your heart to somebody else when you’re giving over so much power and they can screw you over in so many ways. I definitely have that same fear as Xūe.
TL: Why is a show like Soft Power so important right now?
CR: The racism in this country is on the surface, if not right below the surface, all the time. Because the pandemic originated in China, Trump was calling it the “Chinese virus.” To not understand this country’s history with racism and how that would affect people, and even when it was affecting people and people were getting attacked and harassed…he still didn’t stop. There’s something about making another population the ”other” in this country that we still haven’t learned to let go of. It makes the racism that we talk about in Soft Power so much more evident. It feels urgent for the show now. It felt urgent before because it felt like every week in the Trump presidency there was something that was happening that was making us feel like our democracy was falling apart.
In terms of the way Asian Americans experience racism, it’s not even specific. My dad is from the Philippines, but I was called racist slurs. Growing up in the south, people thought I was Chinese. They don’t take the time to learn nuances. That’s kind of what we’ve been experiencing with the coronavirus. If you look like you’re Asian you might get harassed. I can’t imagine what’s going on in someone that would make them say and do racist things. It makes me sad for them. It’s the same thing in Soft Power. If you’re not white you are considered “other” or not a real American. It is so frustrating because the country that I belong to doesn’t really think I belong here. That racism is something that David experienced as well, and that’s part of the reason they speculate he was stabbed.
TL: You played computer genius Oliver Hampton on How to Get Away with Murder for six seasons. Oliver, an HIV-positive gay man, arguably had the longest relationship on the show, and married his partner in a memorable episode. What will you take away from having worked on it?
CR: It makes me well-up because I will probably still be processing it for a few more years. The exposure that it has given to the LGBTQ community, playing this character and being a part of this relationship that everyone loves, has meant so much to me as a gay man. It was something that I needed growing up and I didn’t have it. It felt like something was wrong with me. I couldn’t look anywhere to show me that there were other people like me. To know that Oliver has done that for people all over the world is priceless. I’m going to take the relationships that I’ve built with the cast, as they are something that I’ll always hold dear. There’s also no school that can teach you how to deal with navigating a public life after a huge TV show happened, but I couldn’t have asked for a better group of friends to navigate it with.
TL: What have you learned from Oliver?
CR: When Oliver first started out he was a really meek, shy character. He grew in his confidence and his ability to speak up for himself. I took a little bit away from that because I was pretty shy. On the Myers-Briggs scale I’m definitely an introvert, but can turn on my extroverted side when I need to. He taught me how to be comfortable in speaking up for myself with more confidence.
TL: What would people be surprised to learn about How to Get Away with Murder?
CR: It takes place in Philly but we shoot in sunny Los Angeles. When we shot those winter scenes where we were wearing coats outside, sometimes it was 90 degrees. That’s a silly little tidbit to know. Sometimes they were telling us to act like it was cold but it was so hot. It was supposed to be a Philadelphia winter.
TL: As you look forward to the virtual Drama Desk Awards on May 31st, what are you doing in your down time?
CR: I’ve been writing a show called No Rice with my friends Kelvin Moon Loh and Jeigh Madjus about three gay Asian men in New York City. We’re really far along with a major studio and we’re about to start pitching to networks. It looks like it might happen in the next year.
TL: How would you like to see yourself return to the stage?
CR: I would love it if Soft Power and Here Lies Love came to Broadway. I love both of those shows so much. I would also like to do a play and maybe Shakespeare in the Park. I’ve done so many Shakespeare festivals, so now it’s in my blood to do Shakespeare.
Soft Power Photos: Joan Marcus