Why David Henry Hwang withdrew from a musical version of martial arts movie star Bruce Lee's life, taking his libretto with him, is unknown to me; nor do I know if it was a wise decision, in the context of the collaborative team and the relative health of communication and craft, though with David Yazbek having been composer-lyricist and Bartlett Sher as director, I don’t imagine there were any villains. All I do know is that the play he fashioned out of his libretto, Kung Fu, plays, and is in large measure directed (by Leigh Silverman), like a musical in search of a score.
It doesn’t seek to encompass its subject’s (Cole Horibe) entire life or career; it starts him off as a young martial arts teacher, in Washington, haunted by issues regarding his late father (Frances Yue)—revealed sometimes in flashbacks, sometimes as a catalyzing force still “alive” in Bruce’s psyche—who had been a clown in highly stylized, intricately danced Chinese Opera. And the finish is the point at which Lee makes the fateful decision to return to China and star in chop-socki flicks as a means of returning to the States a fully fledged star. It’s the rite-of-passage section of his life—in which he accepts that to be strongest involves knowing when to bend—and thus a classic musical theatre arc.
It’s also written in big, bold strokes of narrative and dialogue, utilizing the kind of compression usually characterized by musicals too. And not having songs to give that kind of heightened articulation an energized context makes it seem a little incongruous with straight drama (despite a good number of highly choreographed martial arts interludes that are, in effect, production numbers). The thing I can relate it to most closely is the kind of biographical plays that are written for children and young/family audiences. Actually, yes, that’s about right: Kung Fu is a biographical play about Bruce Lee written for grownups in the manner of plays for children.
It seems, though, to work well for the audience, in part because the technique is the easily recognizable delivery system for stories about myths, legends and folk heroes, and what is Bruce Lee if not the embodiment of all three? But as the aforementioned David Yazbek once said to me on the subject of dramatizing real events and people in so transparent a manner, it can never truly seem like art, because you’re so aware of the writer—to use David’s phrase—laying pipe. (We were discussing two other plays at the time and it was some years ago; so far as I know he was not even obliquely referencing the Bruce Lee project.)
The rest of the cast ranges from good enough to very good (which is not terrible when all of them have to be of expert proficiency as dancers who can authentically replicate martial arts moves), in particular Phoebe Strole—who seems to be the sole Occidental—as Bruce’s loyal girlfriend-then-wife; and multi-cast African American Clifton Duncan, who portrays an uncannily accurate James Coburn (and who, as a black man playing a white movie star further promotes the sense of a folk tale in which iconography is more important than literal truth).
Taking all things into account, Kung Fu is one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts affairs that, for all its flaws, seems to be a cathartic audience pleaser, if only by dint of its energy, physicality and cohesion. And no, it’s not capital-A Art. But whatever it is, there’s a place for it.
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