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Theater with a Kick

David Meadow Feb 26

Bruce Lee led a strenuous life, to say the least. Never mind his mysterious death at age 32, which has kept conspiracy theorists busy for decades. Lee’s time on earth threw quite enough at him: He endured colonialism and racism in Hong Kong and the United States. His father gave him endless grief over his choices. He was ambivalent about where to put down roots, or if he even had the roots. Yet he nonetheless managed to become an action-movie legend, an esteemed teacher of martial arts, and, if that wasn’t sufficient, the 1958 cha-cha dancing champion of Hong Kong.

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NYC March Theater Listings

Enter playwright David Henry Hwang, an admirer of Lee who has taken audiences on excursions through the complexities of gender, race and cultural identity in plays such as M. Butterfly and Chinglish — often lending greater depth and sensitivity to classic works about Asian characters. Now, Kung Fu, his play about Lee’s life, is showing at the Signature Theatre. This is a great name: it’s the esteemed martial arts tradition Lee emerged from and taught, but also the name of a TV show that Lee conceived as a vehicle for himself and was shafted out of (in favor of David Carradine, with his eyelids taped to look half-Chinese). The play seems an ideal project for Hwang, and his personal connection to Lee’s quandary of “Who am I, really?” is palpable. Who was Bruce Lee? The play gives us many possible answers.

Dancer-actor Cole Horibe is quite impressive as Lee. This performer, who started in martial arts in his native Hawaii, first caught the playwright’s eye with his flashy martial-arts stylings on the show So You Think You Can Dance. (Hwang offers the term “dancical” for this production). Horibe moves beautifully, evokes passion and angst in the right places, and mimics Lee’s famous facial and verbal tics throughout, including the Piercing Scream While Looking Away From the Guy He’s Decking. To make that action convincing, choreographer Sonya Tayeh makes great use of some dozen performers, whose movements evoke straight dance, classroom sparring and genuine deadly fights while the tightly-popping drum sets and horns of the early 1970s blare on the speakers.

Like the music, Hwang’s script is taut and energetic. It’s rarely heavy-handed, though it is almost self-consciously cinematic in places, and one can sometimes cut through the irony with a knife. Of course, truth can be more ironic than fiction, as many biographical pieces remind us. We see Bruce Lee chafing, vocally, under society’s rigid definitions of what he can be — but then, when he’s immobilized from an accident, his wife must plead desperately with him to let her earn money to support the family. After all, can he still be a man if she’s the breadwinner? (For true fanatics, the action-packed yet highly psychological 1994 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story also touches on Lee’s struggles with the “isms.” If anything, that film is more explicit than this play about his pain at not having his own wife, a white woman, fully understand her husband’s experience of racism).

Partly responsible for Bruce’s old-country gender norms, and general insecurity, is his father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, who in real life worked in Hong Kong as a singer of classical Chinese opera. (The sumptuous costumes and movements of this tradition make for some particularly striking set pieces, with swords flying and long feather headdresses nodding to anoint the audience in the front row). Francis Jue rails bitterly as the aggrieved parent — first a living one, then a nagging, internalized ghost — whose son needs to learn some humility.

Horibe’s Bruce lashes back, resentful of the British colonial regime, but especially resenting his father’s subservience to their colonizers. From where Bruce stands, Hoi-Chuen seems to have “defer to me as a good Chinese son” hopelessly conflated with “defer to our oppressors.” (Notably, Bruce Lee classics Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon both deal with racial injustice, backed by state and colonial power — and in the former movie, it’s Asians oppressing other Asians). Jue portrays his character, with poignant urgency, as a working stiff whose occasional shucking and jiving has a stoic dignity of its own — a dignity his son doesn’t appreciate, even though it’s geared to his benefit. However, by the last time Bruce’s father finds fault with him, he sounds annoyingly bleating and repetitive, and it’s not clear if that is Hwang’s or the director’s intention.

The tight ensemble casting, with triple-threat dancer-fighter-actors in multiple roles, takes effort to follow, but there’s a playfully subversive logic. You realize, several scenes in, that the casting is partially race-arbitrary, if such a thing can exist in theatre, in order to make some of its points about race. Peter Kim, an Asian-American actor, has obvious fun alternating between a stereotypically awkward, self-doubting Japanese-American in Lee’s class and the expansive, glad-handing white network exec William Dozier. Meanwhile, Clifton Duncan, a black actor, logs significant time as white screen legend James Coburn (who studied kung fu with Lee), and this includes a deliciously absurd moment where Coburn “whitesplains” Hollywood Orientalism to his teacher.

One character I’d have loved to see “unpacked” more is Ruby Chow, the brassy restauranteuse who, with her husband, provided an early employment opportunity for the struggling Lee in Seattle. Chow’s 2008 obituary in the Seattle Times profiles an Asian-American superhero in her own right, who advocated for the community from both the grass roots and elected office. Though there may have been some material that didn’t make it to the final version, Chow’s whole role in the play is to tell young Bruce that he’s more trouble for her than he’s worth, and should find a job that suits him better.

Bruce Lee worked, and his career “worked,” on multiple levels. So does this play, right down to its title. If you’re interested in the Bruce Lee oeuvre, martial arts, Hollywood history, 1970’s blues-funk or global race and gender relations, you’ll probably get — dare I say it? — a kick out of this one.

Playing at the Signature Theatre through the end of March. Tickets for performances through March 16 are $25.