NEW YORK — Kung Fu, a new play by David Henry Hwang at New York’s Signature Theatre, dramatizes the early years of Chinese-American martial arts star Bruce Lee, who was born in the United States but raised mostly in Hong Kong. Lee, played by Cole Horibe, was 18 and already an experienced child actor, dancer and master of Chinese martial arts when he returned to the U.S. to finish his schooling. The play is set in a drab studio in Seattle, Washington, similar to the one where Lee taught dance and kung-fu while still a college student.
Hwang said he first tried to write the play as a musical, but decided it was better to use dance interludes rather than songs to punctuate the story.
"It's got 17 dance numbers, a lot of fighting,” he said. “This is something that really I don't think has been done before, at least in America, which is to create what I'm calling a ‘dansical,’ a show which is a combination of drama and dance. So, in a way we kind of had to invent this form, and I think we managed to do it in a pretty short period of time to put on a show that is about as big as any Broadway musical."
Like other plays by Hwang, who is best known for M. Butterfly and Golden Child, Kung Fu is concerned with questions of Asian American identity, prejudice and assimilation. As a young actor in Hollywood, Bruce Lee found himself relegated to secondary, stereotyped roles.
“Every time I see the bowing, scraping Chinaman with the long pigtail, I want to smash the TV!” Lee exclaims in a scene with a TV producer who is about to offer him the sidekick role of Kato on a TV superhero series, The Green Hornet.
"I agree,” Dozier chimes in. “The way Oriental people are portrayed by Hollywood: villains, enemy soldiers, comic relief, it makes me sick. In my project, you would play a completely different kind of character."
"The hero,” Lee replies.
"Well, he works with the hero, and he's a hero, too,” Dozier responds smoothly.
The play also makes a theme of Lee’s struggles, seen in flashbacks, with his father, Hoi-Chuen, a Cantonese-opera star, who despises Lee's aspirations.
"No one gives a damn about Hong Kong!" Lee shouts, as they do mock battle with Shaolin sticks.
"In America, no one gives a damn about you!" his father responds.
As Kato in The Green Hornet - martial artist and aide to the hero - Lee became famous in the U.S. and Hong Kong. But that did not translate into the lead action roles he wanted in Hollywood.
"As talented and as amazing as he was,” Hwang said, “[Lee] wasn't able to break the glass ceiling in American entertainment, and a lot of the second act of the play is about his struggles trying to get work as an actor in America. And at the end of the show he finally realizes that it's not going to happen for him in America, and he goes back to Hong Kong."
The play ends before Lee achieves stardom, through the martial arts action movies that he filmed in Hong Kong in 1971 and 1972. He died of a brain edema the following year at the age of 32, just before the release of his first big Hollywood film, Enter the Dragon.
While some critics have complained that Kung Fu is dramatically inert, and the dialogue prosaic, all have praised its dance sequences, particularly the performance of Horibe, a martial arts Olympic medalist and runner-up on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance.
Variety’s reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, wrote that “choreographer Sonya Tayeh has invented some astonishing moves for a (mostly) male ensemble of dazzling dancer-athletes. So long as Horibe and the guys are airborne, they have our rapt attention.”