When Time magazine put together its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, Bruce Lee won a spot, right alongside Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso and Mother Theresa. It might surprise some people that a martial artist and action film star would make the cut but Lee was also an icon for legions of Asian-American kids who grew up in mid-century America hungry for a hero who looked like them and who radiated the kind of macho sexiness that belied the commonly-held stereotype of Asian men as milquetoasts and nerds.
David Henry Hwang was apparently among those adoring kids, which may explain why the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s latest work is Kung Fu, a bioplay about Lee that opened in The Diamond theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center on Monday night. Now, here’s where I should say that the play kicks butt but, alas, it doesn’t, at least not for me.
Maybe Lee's charisma just plays better on the screen. A 1993 biopic did well with critics and moviegoers alike. But a planned musical about Lee’s life, with Hwang doing the book and David Yazbek the music, never got off the ground. And this new Kung Fu was supposed to be part of the season that Signature devoted to the playwright’s work last spring but it wasn’t ready then.
And it isn’t now. Hwang doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say about Lee and so he just offers an unnuanced tick-tock of the actor's life, peppered here and there with some non-revelatory observations about how difficult it was to be a yellow man in white Hollywood.
The play opens in the early ‘60s when the 18 year-old Lee, who was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, has moved back to the States and begun teaching martial arts in Seattle. The son of a Chinese opera star and himself a successful child actor, Lee eventually makes his way to Hollywood where he teaches martial arts to movie stars like Steve McQueen and James Coburn and eventually gets a gig as the sidekick Kato on the TV show “The Green Hornet.”
The play ends after Hollywood execs refuse to cast him in lead roles and Lee reluctantly returns to Hong Kong to make low-budget action movies. Left out are those films Lee made in Hong Kong, including the now-cult-classic “Enter the Dragon” and his premature death from brain edema when he was just 32.
But all is not lost. What gives this production, directed by Hwang’s frequent collaborator Leigh Silverman, some oomph are the dream sequences that incorporate Hwang’s trademark fascination with Chinese opera, plus lots and lots of kinetically choreographed fight scenes.
The choreography is a large part of what made my sister Joanne and me want to see the show. We’re both hardcore fans of the TV dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance” and were excited that one of its most imaginative choreographers Sonya Tayeh was hired to create the moves for Kung Fu.
Tayeh likes to work in a style she calls combat jazz, which, as you might imagine, is perfect for this show. The kicks, flips and clashes that she and Fight Director Emmanuel Brown have concocted are so dynamic that they made me fear for the safety of the actors performing them (click here to read about how they were put together).
As it should be, the most audacious of them all is Cole Horibe, a runner-up on “So You Think You Can Dance” and a Junior Olympic silver medalist in Taekwondo, who plays Lee. Just as Lee was, Horibe is short, sleekly chiseled and moves with panther-like grace.
Unfortunately, Horibe’s acting isn’t yet as dexterous. He looks particularly callow in the mano-a-mano scenes with the stage vet Francis Jue, who makes Lee’s father the only fully inhabited character onstage.
However a special nod must also be given to Clifton Duncan, an African-American actor who is colorblind-casted as Coburn and manages to play the white actor without looking ridiculous.
To be fair, none of the play looks silly and those fight scenes really are exciting to watch. But while the practice of kung fu emphasizes physical agility, it also prizes an inner grace which Kung Fu lacks.