Conrad Ricamora didn’t set out to be an actor. Growing up, the “How to Get Away With Murder” star lived all over the world, from Iceland to Florida, due to his father’s job in the Air Force. Though he enjoyed singing and dancing when he was little, by the time he hit middle school, “I realized guys would be ridiculed if you did that, so I quickly stopped and started playing sports.”
It wasn’t until his junior year of college, where he was majoring in psychology, that he took an acting class. He chose to do a monologue from Lanford Wilson’s “Lemon Sky” about a boy meeting his estranged parent. The actor, who says “my father was born in the Philippines and my mother is white,” elaborates on how the play spoke to him. “My mom left when I was an infant and I didn’t see her until I was eight years old,” reveals Ricamora. “So I felt I could speak with some authority on stage. And it was electric; it really changed my life.” From there, he went on to get his MFA from the University of Tennessee and started taking singing lessons — “finding my voice” both literally and figuratively.
That stunning voice is on full display in “Soft Power,” now making its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles before continuing a run at The Curran in San Francisco. Playing Chinese movie producer Xue Xing, Ricamora sings, dances, and romances Hillary Clinton in the ambitious “play with a musical” collaboration between Tony winners David Henry Hwang (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (who wrote the music and additional lyrics.)
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To even try to describe “Soft Power” is to court madness, but here goes. The story begins in 2016 with Xue courting DHH (a fictionalized version of the playwright played by Francis Jue) to write a TV series set in Shanghai. They attend a performance of “The King and I” as a fundraiser for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Xue’s girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis) discusses how such musicals can work as a delivery system to learn about other cultures.
But all this is uprooted when Hwang is stabbed in the neck in an apparent hate crime (the real-life Hwang really was a victim of such an attack) and he fantasizes a wild East-meets-West musical starring Xue and Clinton (played in the musical by Louis). Splashy numbers follow that skewer politics, examine cultures, and satirize America’s love for McDonald’s and guns.
As one can expect, it elicits a passionate response from viewers. “I haven’t seen anything in the theater that has touched on themes that are so current in our everyday lives right now,” notes Ricamora, who previously appeared on Broadway in “Here Lies Love” and “The King and I.”
He continues, “The resonance of the show changes daily with what’s happening in the news. A few days after the latest school shooting, there was a palpable tension in our theater. And people are still really raw over the 2016 election.” While he recognizes this can be triggering for some audience members, he adds, “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Theater can provide an escape, but it also should be a place where we all come to debate and think and keep our minds on when we’re in our seats.”
To borrow a theme from the show itself, Ricamora says “Soft Power” is itself a great delivery system. “I want people to be entertained and I think that they are. Sometimes shows can get preachy and heavy and I feel like because the show has such great dialogue and music and stagecraft, it’s entertaining,” he says, adding, “[Director] Leigh Silverman was telling me her friend called it ‘the sweetest piece of chocolate with a razor blade inside.’”
Ricamora became aware of the project last year, while he was shooting “HTGAWM” in L.A., and sent in an audition tape. In fall of 2017, he was in New York and able to audition in person, but just with the first scene of the show, before it becomes a musical. Though it was explained where the show was going from there, he says it was still in development. “I was putting a lot of faith in these amazing creators and jumping in,” he says. “But I’ve been a fan of both Henry and Jeanine since I started doing theater. I knew I was in good hands.”
Ricamora’s day job as computer genius Oliver Hampton on the hit Viola Davis series didn’t interfere with rehearsals, which began after “HTGAWM” wrapped for the season. His character was only intended to be in the pilot, but the role continued to grow and the actor was made a regular in Season 3. Oliver is another role that touches many lives, as the character is HIV-positive. “I don’t think I had an awareness of what a big impact the role would have until I started getting letters from people who are living in the closet in Middle America or people who are HIV-positive and so thankful they get to see their situation playing out on TV,” Ricamora says.
He won’t be able to enjoy much time off between jobs; “Soft Power” gives its final performance on July 8 and on July 9 he starts work on the fifth season of “HTGAWM.” But the actor isn’t complaining. After working hard for the last 15 years, he’s enjoying this surge of success. Asked if he hoped for a career in theater or on camera, he says simply, “I wanted to act. I’m happy to do it whenever and wherever I can.” As for whether he was concerned that roles for an a mixed-race actor might be limited, he says, “No. What good is worrying, you know? You can only think about what you can control and I can only work on my voice, work on my acting skill, my presence, being in the moment. So that’s what I focus on.”
In fact, Ricamora notes he’s in a position where he can now create work for himself and his friends. He’s written episodes of a TV show called “No Rice” with Kelvin Moon Loh and Jeigh Madjus he says is about “a group of gay, Asian men trying to find love in New York City.” While he’s passionate about it, the trio are also very busy — Loh is currently in “SpongeBob SquarePants” on Broadway and Madjus is about to open in “Moulin Rouge.” Says Ricamora, “We want to be realistic about when we can get together to do this as we’re all on huge projects. Which is a nice problem to have.”