Looks like “Kung Fu,” David Henry Hwang’s reverential homage to Bruce Lee, should have been a musical after all. Cole Horibe, Taekwondo Olympic medalist (and finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance”), is poetry in motion as the legendary martial arts master, and choreographer Sonya Tayeh has invented some astonishing moves for a (mostly) male ensemble of dazzling dancer-athletes. So long as Horibe and the guys are airborne, they have our rapt attention. But this sprawling bio-dram lacks a cohesive narrative structure, and there’s no dramatic objective to all the fancy footwork.
The play opens well. In a Seattle dance studio in 1959, an 18-year-old Chinese emigre fresh off the boat challenges a Japanese-American coed to a dancing duel. (“Opponent, but also partner,” he tells her. “All life, about the balancing.”) Back in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee (Horibe) was a champion cha-cha dancer and an adept in the martial arts. Patty (Kristen Faith Oei), a Martha Graham disciple, is modern dance all the way.
But this cocky kid is nothing if not sure of himself — sure enough to see greatness in himself. In the span of a single dynamic dance with Patty, he fluidly integrates ancient and modern cultures into an exciting new form, and he even gets to kiss the girl.
To top off this smart scene, Patty lets this greenhorn know that life in America is tough on Asian men, even great dancers. (“Over here Chinese guys wait tables and do laundry,” she tells him. “Better get used to it.”) And then she dumps him.
In subsequent scenes, Lee learns this lesson the hard way. He’s fired from a waiter’s job for insubordination. He encounters racism as a co-star of the TV show “The Green Hornet.” He doesn’t get credit for conceiving the TV series “Kung Fu.” When his wife, Linda (Phoebe Strole), goes to work to support the family, he even feels his manhood threatened.
His response to the constant humiliations is visceral: “Every time I see the bowing, scraping Chinaman with the long pigtail, I want to smash the TV.”
For every failure, his father, a Cantonese opera performer, is sure to show up in a flashback scene (dramatically lighted by Ben Stanton) to berate his son for betraying his heritage. Gorgeously costumed (by Anita Yavich) in traditional robes, the stately but stern Hoi-Chuen (Francis Jue, giving a magnetic perf), is a formidable presence. But to his son’s mortification, this artist must play a clown to support his family — something that Lee vows he will never do.
Hwang pursues these themes in brief scenes that depend largely on Leigh Silverman’s expert helming for some physical cohesion. But with no plot objective in sight, the narrative thread keeps slipping away. More surprising, coming from a wordsmith like Hwang, the dramatic language is much inferior to the eloquent dance vocabulary.
Tayeh’s choreographic style has a chameleon quality that’s a seamless fit for Horibe’s own fusion dance style. There’s a great deal of muscularity to those dances inspired by Kung Fu moves (they don’t call it “martial” arts for nothing). The gang fights that Lee fought on the streets of Hong Kong have a different kind of raw, undisciplined energy. But even Chinese opera gets rough when weapons are involved. Hollywood, too, gets in on the act with some slick variations on ancient martial arts moves. And underlying it all is the balletic grace that Lee picked up during his dancing days in the studio.
Hwang’s fragmentary narrative ends in Hong Kong, just as Bruce Lee is poised to become “Bruce Lee.” So in a sense, we never really got to know him. But at least we caught a glimpse of him taking flight.