The Story Behind the Photo: "M. Butterfly"

Tania Thompson
 | Feb 19, 2021
M Butterfly
Yoko Hasebe, Jake Manabat, Lucas Verbrugghe and Sophy Zhao in M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (2019). Photo by Jordan Kubat.

About ​​M. Butterfly

When this rich, compelling drama debuted on Broadway, it became an instant sensation, sweeping the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. A married French diplomat. A mysterious Chinese opera diva. A passionate 20-year affair. Inspired by true events, this break-out hit by the author of Chinglish and Golden Child proved much more than a steamy tale of seduction. Obsession, perception and the allure of fantasy make for a remarkable tale of espionage and betrayal described as “visionary” by The New York Times.

Jake Manabat made his South Coast Repertory debut in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (2019). The character of Song Liling is dear to him—he understudied the role for the 2017 Broadway revival of​ the play and starred in two other productions. In addition to theatre, his credits include television and film including “Madam Secretary,” “Lillyhammer,” Crane Story: Paper Dolls and The Long Season. He selected this photo [above] from SCR’s 2019 production of M. Butterfly and in this Q&A, talked about why it’s an important moment.

What moment does this depict?

Jake Manabat: This moment is the second time the narrator of the play, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat living in Beijing, sees Song Liling, a Chinese opera performer. The first time, Song performed the death scene, as Cio-Cio-San, from Gallimard's favorite opera, Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. This second time, Song performs from The Butterfly Lovers, a Chinese opera that Song considers to be more beautiful than Puccini. Both times, Gallimard is watching, enthralled. We are witness to the beginnings of a passionate but forbidden love affair that ultimately ends in scandal and tragedy.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

JM: First and foremost, this moment could not have happened without Annie Yee’s beautiful choreography—and her patience teaching it to me! In The Butterfly Lovers, Song is portraying a girl who, in order to be educated, must disguise herself as a boy. And in this moment, unable to hold the truth inside after falling in love with a classmate, her truth bursts forth. I had never done a ribbon dance before, so it was especially challenging—moving the ribbons had to be fast and strong enough to keep them aloft, yet slow and deliberate enough to register shapes and not get tangled. Annie made sure that I brought out the grace, joy and meaning ​demanded by this moment of the story-within-the-story. 

We had been rehearsing the dance with the idea that Lucas Verbrugghe, who played Gallimard, was stationary watching me. Desdemona Chiang, our director, tried having him sit and stand still while I was dancing—one try with him in the audience. But no matter where she placed him, something just wasn't working. Was there a better way for the audience to simultaneously watch Song and watch Gallimard watch Song? Lucas suggested: what if he was walking around the stage instead of staying still? Des wanted to see what that looked like, so we tried it. We were on to something, so we tried out different ideas that built on the last. What about him circling around me during the dance? Yes. What about a slower walk? Yes. What about him taking some moments to stop and stare to highlight Gallimard's fascination with Song and his difficulty understanding Chinese opera? Yes. What about timing those moments to specific points in the choreography? Yes. What about staging it to avoid crashing into Yoko Hasebe and Sophy Zhao, who were also dancing in the scene? Oops! What if a moment happened so that he ended up between them, upstage center and looked downstage at me, when I swept the ribbons upwards in a grand arc at center? Yes! That is this pictured moment.

What’s the power in this moment?

JM: In the world of the play, this moment is Song commanding the attention of the Chinese opera house audience and bringing to life a legend they know very well. We see Song's power over the opera's audience and joy and pride in performing for them. In Gallimard's mind, this is Gallimard processing the performance he is watching. He is bewildered by the opera, yet beguiled by the performer. We see Song's power over Gallimard. You’ll see on the stage, Song is positioned at the center, which is the most powerful position to be, while Gallimard is directly upstage, which is a much weaker position. Visually, we see Song has more power than Gallimard. 

In the blocking of the scene, we had Gallimard circling around Song. This visual suggests a predator circling its prey, which further suggests that Gallimard actually has some power over Song. This visual, coupled with Song in the power position at center, shows us that they both have power. We see Gallimard and Song's power over, and weakness to, each other. Note that after this, when Gallimard and Song compare their respective favored operas and Gallimard says that they are both tragic love stories, Song replies: “But in mine, the boy and the girl love as equals.”

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

JM: See the headdress that I am wearing in the photo? I still have it! It is proudly displayed in my living room. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of the passion, love, commitment and truthfulness we shared with each other and the audience in service to this incredible story.