A dramatic biography of Kung Fu star Bruce Lee sounds like an odd choice for a play, but Hwang's script, Leigh Silverman's direction, Sonya Tayeh's choreography and an extraordinary star turn by young Cole Horibe combine to create a simply amazing theatrical experience.
This is not your conventional linear biography. Hwang has layered experiences in Lee's tragically short life (he was 32 when he died). We begin in a Seattle dance studio where Lee, a sometime waiter, encounters a young Japanese American Martha Graham student. Lee couldn't be more cocky or eager to become a success in his new home. We see in this pas de deux how his martial arts, learned in part from street fighting in Hong Kong, merge with her dance. Lee becomes a successful Kung Fu teacher but wants more. Seattle is not enough. He wants Hollywood, but Hollywood is not ready for an Asian star, particularly one as pushy as Lee. The play ends with Lee reluctantly deciding to work in the film industry in his home town of Hong Kong (the rest is history). In between, we have flashbacks to Lee's relationship with his father, an opium-smoking actor. The father (brilliantly played by Francis Yu) remains a presence in Lee's psyche. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes in the play is an imaginary stick fight between Lee and his father. Throughout, we see Lee's relationship to his devoted non-Asian wife and his young son (Bradley Fong, who also plays young Bruce). In KUNG FU, Hwang deals with some of his favorite topics -- the place of Asians in American society, and the relationship of traditional Asian parents to their rebellious children who want success in the New World. As usual, he has written a play that is absorbing, but also a crowd pleaser. This isn't great drama that plumbs depths or scales heights, but a good script that's a vehicle for a thrilling production.
What can one say about this production? First, Cole Horibe is simply brilliant in meeting the almost superhuman demands of the central role. Actor, dancer, martial arts specialist -- he has mastered all the skills necessary -- and he makes it all look effortless. On top of all that he's a handsome, charming performer. The ensemble that supports him, playing multiple roles and executing spectacular moves, is simply amazing. David Zinn's set begins as a realistic looking dance studio, but simply transforms into the other locales, aided by Ben Stanton's lighting design.
The Signature is simply the most pleasant theatre center in New York. The audience for KUNG FU was certainly a mixture. The usual geriatrics (the core audience for serious theatre these days), Asian-American dads with their sons, guys who obviously are Bruce Lee fans, young couples. The show deserves a wide audience and a long run. It's terrific! And you can buy your very own Bruce Lee action figures in the theatre bookshop!!
KUNG FU. The Pershing Square Signature Center. March 12, 2014.