Tony Awards spotlight: Jin Ha spreads his wings in ‘M. Butterfly’ revival

As Tony Awards voters love to recognize transformative performances, Jin Ha of “M. Butterfly” is a strong contender for Best Featured Actor in a Play. In Julie Taymor’s revival of David Henry Hwang‘s play, he portrays Peking opera singer Song Liling. Song’s performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” enchants Clive Owen’s Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat. The two embark on a wild affair behind closed doors, but secrets abound. Most pressingly, Song is pulling a “Victor/Victoria” on Gallimard: He is a man pretending to be a woman in order to win over the Frenchman.

The role demands unparalleled versatility. Song must be feminine enough to convince Gallimard that he is actually a woman, and audiences must buy into this conceit. Jin Ha proved up to the task. As the relationship unfolds on stage, Ha embraces and then upends gender cliches to create a mesmerizing character full of contradictions. Most impressively, the feminine alterations in his physicality and vocal quality flow naturally, never verging on caricature.

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Here is how some of New York’s top critics responded to his performance:

David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter): “The talented Jin Ha, who plays Song with an enigmatic air that moves sinuously from a convincing affectation of graceful subservience to teasing manipulation and survivalist cunning as the story weaves in espionage and betrayal.”

Robert Hofler (The Wrap): “The magic of Ha’s performance is that his Liling becomes more genuinely feminine as the drama progresses.”

David Cote (What should We Do): “Jin Ha does a fine job aping a Western conception of Eastern womanhood, while slipping in acid notes of criticism for the imperialist insults he and his countrymen have to endure.”

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Unfortunately, these reviewers were not as enamored of the overall show. Taymor’s stripped down staging turned off some audience members who maintained fond memories of John Dexter’s lavish treatment of the original, Tony winning, production. This revival also closed way back on December 17t. History shows that it’s difficult to remain at the forefront of nominator’s memories if your show has been absent from the rialto for several months.

B.D. Wong claimed a Tony for creating the role of Song (starring opposite John Lithgow’s Gallimard) in his Broadway debut. Likewise, the revival marked Ha’s Broadway debut as well, having only recently graduated from NYU. Helping Ha repeat Wong’s Tony trajectory is the size of the role, which could arguably be considered a co-lead due to his stage time. Central roles that compete in the Featured categories are often recognized, as when Reed Birney won Featured Actor in a Play for “The Humans.”

There are a plethora of talented men looking to break into the Featured Actor in a Play category. “Angel in America,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and “The Iceman Cometh” all have multiple contenders vying for a spot. But with a remarkable debut in a monstrously challenging role, Ha remains a major threat for transforming himself like a butterfly.

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