There are Broadway debuts, and then there are Broadway debuts that merit their own reaction GIF. Enter Jin Ha. Two years ago, he was studying acting at NYU, and now he’s been chosen by Julie Taymor to star in her revival of M. Butterfly, one of the most anticipated shows of the year.
“Trust me, it’s unbelievable,” says Ha, sitting at a French bistro in Manhattan’s theater district. “If I were to hear this third-person, I’d be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
But the role is no joke. It has had the 27-year-old newcomer tied up in rehearsals from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, for the past three months, and its legacy would unnerve even the most confident performer. When it first opened on Broadway in 1988, the show was a smash, winning Tonys for best play and best direction, and making a star out of BD Wong, who also earned a Tony for best featured actor. Given that its story centered on a gender-nonconforming character, the original’s accolades and two-year run seem especially astonishing.
The new M. Butterfly (which opens October 26 at Cort Theatre) is unique in its own right. The tale of a French diplomat who falls for Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer who is a man masquerading as a woman, David Henry Hwang’s script (inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly) is three acts of aching romance and desperate tragedy. But for this iteration the playwright has amended certain scenes and dialogue.
“He’s recontextualized it,” says Ha. “The show in ’88 pushed the envelope in terms of gender expression, gender identity, Orientalism, and how the West views the East. Our production will continue to push that, but we’re in a time now when audiences can have a more nuanced conversation about it. We go further because they can follow us.”
Ha is no stranger to shifting contexts. The son of restaurateurs, he moved around a lot as a kid—from Seoul to Hong Kong to Connecticut to New Jersey—and attended both public schools and the elite boarding academy Choate. “I grew up washing dishes, busing tables, and watching my parents work day and night to put me through school,” he says. Feeling unprepared for a career in acting after high school, he delayed enrolling in the NYU conservatory program and pursued a degree in East Asian language and culture at Columbia University. “If I were to sum it up, college for me was exploring my identity as an Asian American,” he says. “What is my heritage? Where do I fit in?”
Sweater: Bottega Veneta
His ruminations on race and its implications continued when, two months after graduating from NYU, he was cast in a Chicago production of Hamilton, becoming the first non-white actor to play King George. “Hamilton’s done so much for musical theater, telling the immigrant’s story and bringing people of color onto the stage in roles that aren’t usually written for us,” Ha says. “I don’t wish to be the first Asian-American anything, but if it is to be the case, I will proudly step into it, and, more importantly, clear the path for everybody else behind me to follow.”
Ha was still in Hamilton when he landed the role of Song, after his agent arranged a video audition with Taymor. To prepare for the part, he researched and trained in Beijing opera—which combines singing, dancing, mime, and acrobatics—before starting rehearsals with his co-star, Clive Owen, who plays Song’s paramour, Rene Gallimard. “Part of the research was personal,” Ha says. “I asked myself, What privileges do I have as a cissexual, cisgender, heterosexual man? Because this play explores that.”
His critical eye proved valuable in the revision process. “Jin really wants the show to be culturally authentic,” says Hwang, who welcomed Ha and his castmates’ feedback while workshopping the play and incorporated some of their notes into the script. “The details are important to him.”
This type of sensitivity is founded. There’s more pressure for authentic representation today than when M. Butterfly premiered, and more accountability. Jeffrey Tambor may have nabbed two Emmys for Transparent, but many insist his role should be portrayed by a trans actor.
None of this was lost on the team behind the revival, and gender-nonconforming actors did audition to play Song. But Hwang was instantly taken with Ha’s performance, which he describes as honest and lived-in. “It would have been really interesting to cast somebody nonconforming,” he says. “But we found an actor we liked, and he happened to be a cisgender straight guy. He happened to be Jin.”
Photography: Daniel Seung Lee
Styling: Michael Cook
Groomer: Angela DiCarlo
Suit & Shirt: Gucci