“Kung Fu”: David Henry Hwang Brings Bruce Lee to the Signature Theatre

“Kung Fu”: David Henry Hwang Brings

Bruce Lee to the Signature Theatre

By Sophia Hsu

     Meeting David Henry Hwang for the first time, I was star-struck. He was every bit what I had imagined a commercially successful playwright would be. He had his own distinct fashion sense, a vast knowledge of random facts learned during research for plays, colorful stories of his past, and a really diverse palette of friends. One of those colorful stories is how he was finally able to transform an idea he had in the mid-1990s for a Bruce Lee musical into a Bruce Lee danci-cal for the stage at the Signature Theatre.


     Bruce Lee is an iconic figure and role model to Chinese-Americans growing up in the 1960s and 70s, so it was only natural that Mr. Hwang had been fascinated by the Bruce Lee legend. Even now, Lee’s image, acting style, and style of kung fu are reproduced, mimicked, and touted. What really influenced David was a movie about Bruce Lee’s life starring Jason Scott Lee and Lauren Holly, “The movie ‘Dragon[:The Bruce Lee Story]’, though it had some pretty substantial flaws, helped me to see Bruce as a transformative figure, who bridged the “poor, weak” stereotypes of China from my youth with the New China of today.”

     David took a few moments away from working on the production to generously share the ups and downs of bringing this play to life. Originally, the idea for the play was to be a musical with song and dance numbers in between dialogue through most of the 2000s. The script never really came to together properly, and “. . . every time we tried to make Bruce Lee sing, it felt very South Park — in not a good way.” Eventually, the creative team went their separate ways. But, once the idea of turning this Bruce Lee musical into a “. . .’danci-cal,’ with scenes and numbers, which would include martial arts, dance, and underscoring, but no actual songs . . .” the writing, vision, and path to the stage became clear, making it relatively easy to write.

      At the same time Mandopop star Leehom Wang had originally met with David to work on the score, his acting career began to take off, and he ended up having the leave the creative team. On the upside, though, the team discovered that “found” music from the 1960s really helped establish the period of the story as well as new music from Chinese-American composer Du Yun. Since the play will cover the years Lee spent in the U.S. with a few flashbacks to Hong Kong, David reached out to Linda Lee Caldwell, Lee’s widow, in the mid-1990s when he began to toy with the idea and has continued to receive support and encouragement from Ms. Caldwell and her daughter Shannon.

    Signature Theatre is probably best known for their Ticket Initiative program making theater more affordable and accessible offering $25 tickets for the entire initial run of a show. From their website, “Signature Theatre Company exists to honor and celebrate the playwright,” which is provided through their residency programs allowing up to nine playwrights to be featured at the theater per cycle. David has already enjoyed extended runs of both “Golden Child” and “The Dance and the Railroad” during his residency at Signature. Subscriptions to Signature’s 2013 – 2014 season, which includes “Kung Fu”, are already on sale.  Individual tickets will be made available later in the winter.  Opening night is scheduled for Monday, February 24, 2014.  For more information regarding the ticket initiative and residency programs or to buy tickets, visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org.

Photo credit: Gregory Costanzo