David Henry Hwang’s new off-Broadway show entitled, KUNG FU, is a rare look at the iconic Bruce Lee and his history, from troubled youth, martial arts instructor, husband, father and living out his American dream of making it in Hollywood. Through an effective usage of dream-like visits from his dead father, mixed with well crafted Chinese Opera sequences, we learn about the troubled relationship between father and son, that helps the audience understand the complexities when different cultures unite.
The production is effective in captivating it’s audience through it’s blend of dance choreography, mixed with intricate fight sequences, directed by cast member, Emmanuel Brown. Brown, by the way, does an ingenous job of portraying actor, James Coburn, when Lee and Coburn worked together in the 60’s. Cole Horibe, who plays Lee, possesses the charisma and strength, mixed with his background in dance and martial arts, which was critical to bringing Lee’s story into 2014.
Hwang’s story helps us live out Lee’s passion for wanting to make it in Hollywood. When Lee gets the part as Kato in “The Green Hornet”, the short lived television show, the stage is electrified through the talented cast’s re-imagining the classic scenes from years past. The same is true for Lee’s role in the infamous, “Enter the Dragon”. However, as much fun as these scenes are to watch, we learn that Lee, like many Asian actors, fell victim to being typecast, and of course was held back from achieving more opportunities in Hollywood. “Kung Fu”, the television series, was arguably invented by Lee, but the part went to David Carradine instead, showing Hollywood’s affinity for overlooking ethnic actors in lead roles. Unfortunately, many Asian actors today are still fighting for a stronger presence in Hollywood, and have to overcome stereotypes which label them as inferior to their white, or black counterpart actors.
There couldn’t be a more important time to bring back an iconic figure, like Bruce Lee, for his contribution to martial arts in America, and for his fight to prove his strength and ability as a leading man, during a time that didn’t recognize Asian males as strong figures. Once again Hwang partners up with director, Leigh Silverman to shed light on a culture that has influenced America, while shedding light on the dance that China and America have entertained for so many years. In their last production, “Chinglish”, the duo utilized intricate moving sets that propelled the storyline and kept it’s audience on the edge of their seats. For “Kung Fu”, they opted for a minimalistic set, and focused on lighting, music and of course strategically choreographed dance and fight numbers. The result is not only effective, but keeps the focus on our protagonist. If there was one gripe about “Kung Fu”, it would be the usage of one too many pedestrian scenes that felt more like a made for t.v. show, than an important stage production. That being said, “Kung Fu” should be seen by those that remember this important figure in American pop culture, and for younger audiences today, who would benefit from a stronger presence of Asian actors, and their plight for visibility in American culture.
KUNG FU plays at
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues) Now through March 30th, 2014. Visit: www.signaturetheatre.org