David Henry Hwang has had a rich and varied career in the theatre, but as a playwright he is best known for work that explores the lives of Asians and Asian-Americans. His new drama, Kung Fu, at the Signature Center’s Diamond space, tells the story of martial arts star Bruce Lee. If the playwriting lacks nuance and surprise, sometimes delivering its points as unsubtly as one of Lee’s swift kicks, the production features skilled physical movement both fierce and flowing.
The production opens in late-1950s Seattle, where Lee is attending school and teaching martial arts. On David Zinn’s practice-studio set, Lee, portrayed by the disciplined young martial arts champion Cole Horibe, takes his pupils through a complex series of motions. He makes moves of another kind on Linda Emery, a fellow university student – given verve by Phoebe Strole – who eventually becomes Lee’s wife.
Kung Fu, directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, tells us little about Lee’s competitive martial-arts career, focusing on his relationship with his father, Lee Hoi-chuen, and on his fight to succeed as a performer in the Caucasian-dominated Hollywood of the 1960s.
Though born in San Francisco, in 1940, Lee grew up in Hong Kong. Kung Fu does not stress the fact that Lee’s mother, Grace Ho, came from a privileged family, preferring instead to offer Lee’s narrative as one of continuing struggle.
Several scenes illustrate Lee’s conflicts with his father, a leading Cantonese actor, who opposes his son’s desire to perform. Francis Jue lends Hoi-chuen great dignity, even as Hwang has the character speak occasionally in the rhetoric of Noble Aged Parent.
The play is most effective in its dialogue-free moments. A sequence in which Lee enacts his best-known American television role – as Kato in The Green Hornet – is staged with the kinetic energy and the comic-book colours of a Roy Lichtenstein canvas.
The Green Hornet lasted a mere season, and Lee kept trying to establish himself in non-stereotypical roles. The Establishment was against him. “In Hollywood,” says James Coburn, a Hollywood star and one of Lee’s martial-arts pupils, “they don’t think of Oriental men as men.” Lee returned to Hong Kong, where he made a series of successful films, before dying in 1973, at the age of 32. Judging from all the memorabilia on sale in the Signature Center’s lobby, his legacy lives powerfully on.