Tony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24. This is the first of his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU.
We’re just finishing our first week of rehearsals for my new show KUNG FU, about the great martial arts and film legend, Bruce Lee. Our first rehearsal, on January 2nd, was particularly emotional for me. Probably because it had taken twenty years to arrive at that day.
I first had the idea to do a show about Bruce Lee back around 1993. Even then, it seemed clear that China was rising, and would regain its centuries-old status as a world power. When I was a kid in the 1960’s, however, the image of China was completely different: poor, uneducated, hopelessly dysfunctional, the “sick man of Asia” (a phrase Lee used in his movie FIST OF FURY). Bruce Lee gained international stardom in the 1970’s, as that image was just beginning to change. He therefore became the first pop culture manifestation of a New China. I wanted to write about that.
Envisioning a Bruce Lee musical, I contacted his widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, who was supportive and enthusiastic. It took almost a decade, however, to straighten out rights and put together a top-notch Broadway producer, director, and composer/lyricist team. We finally got to work around 2003.
But I couldn’t get it right. Though I wrote draft after draft, the story and characters wouldn’t come alive for me. By 2009, the producer and my fellow artists had given up on me, and the project fell apart.
Needless to say, this was a heartbreaking moment. My dream had died, due to my own shortcomings. Very soon after, however, I realized I still wanted to make this show. I just wanted to do it a different way.
Perhaps the problem had been in trying to do this story as a musical. On reflection, the idea of Bruce Lee singing seemed very SOUTH PARK – in not a good way. So I began to envision a play which would include martial arts, of course, and dance – all of which would be underscored with music. But there would be no songs as such; no one would actually sing.
Rather than a musical, we would invent a new form – a “dance-ical.” Suddenly, the writing began to click, the story flowed, and the characters finally came to life.
Signature Theatre in NYC had named me its Residency One playwright, which meant they would devote a whole season to my work – two “revivals” of older plays, plus a world premiere. For the new piece, I told Jim Houghton, Signature’s Artistic Director, about my Bruce Lee idea, and he was excited to produce it. My long-time artistic partner, Leigh Silverman, who had directed the world premieres of YELLOW FACE and CHINGLISH, as well as the Signature revival of my 1998 play GOLDEN CHILD, would helm this new version, which I called KUNG FU, after the TV series Bruce Lee had developed, only to see its lead role given instead to a Caucasian actor, David Carradine.
And I was ready to write about more than just the rise of China. Born and raised in Los Angeles, I, like many other Asian guys, struggled with feeling disempowered and emasculated by American society. In the story of Bruce Lee, I now saw the chance to create rarely if ever seen in U.S. media: a positive image of Asian masculinity.
Will I succeed? All I know is that I will bring my best to this goal. Along the way, I’ll check in every week with blog posts here on YOMYOMF chronicling rehearsals, as we head towards February 24, 2014: Opening Night of the world premiere of KUNG FU.
Check out this video from Cole’s photo shoot: