Martial Arts Theatre

Bruce Lee on Broadway is Not Your Asian Sidekick

I just got out of the Signature Theatre on 42nd and 10th in New York City where I got to see a performance of Kung Fu — the new play about the life of Asian America’s original superhero Bruce Lee — by renowned playwright David Henry Hwang. And I have to say, I was blown away.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of star Cole Horibe since his turn on Season Nine of FOX’s hit reality competition show So You Think You Can Dance (btw, Kung Fu reunites Horibe with SYTYCD choreographer Sonya Tayeh). In addition to seeing how the play combined martial arts and dance — which was essentially Horibe’s specialty on SYTYCD — I was also interested to see how he would embody the icon. Spoiler Alert: dude is amazing.

As great as Horibe is in the role, there were a few actors who were just as fantastic. My favorites were Francis Jue as Bruce’s father, Clifton Duncan as (a brilliantly racebent) James Coburn, and Peter Kim’s dual role as Bruce’s confidant Toshi and legendary Batman producer William Dozier. In fact, the entire Green Hornet segment was probably the highlight of the whole thing for me — and the most NOC-relevant aspect of the show.

In 2014, when we remember Bruce, we likely think of Enter the Dragon or the one-inch punch. But the role that really launched Bruce Lee into superstardom was as Britt Reid’s manservant/sidekick Kato on the short-lived 1966 Green Hornet adaptation. The play deftly addresses Bruce’s long-simmering need — and filial desire — to “make something of” himself in America, but it also shows his inner conflict between seeking fame and having integrity. Because in 1960s Hollywood, you seemingly couldn’t have both, especially if you were an oriental.

There was one person in Hollywood, though. His name was William Dozier. Coming off the cultural zeitgeist-y Batman series, Dozier attempted to bring the classic radio serial Green Hornet to the small screen. The one thing his fellow television executives couldn’t comprehend, however, was that the Hornet fought alongside an Asian man called Kato. What? People can’t comprehend the idea of an Asian superhero? That’s something we have a little experience with here at the NOC. (Oh, speaking of Iron Fist, shout out to Rebecca Sun, who first suggested on twitter that Horibe would be a great Danny Rand.)

The staging of the Green Hornet audition scene lovingly recreates Bruce’s famous screen test, racebends the TV executives, and meta-contextually explains ‘Murica’s unease with non-white heroes. As portrayed by Kim, Dozier comes off like an Asian American crusader, telling off his colleagues for their small-mindedness in seeing an Asian superhero on screen. I suspect that the actual conversations in those ABC studios were less progressive, but the kicker is that questioning the viability of an Asian American leading man is still an issue today, five decades later.

That’s the other thing, despite the name the show was given in international markets, it actually wasn’t “The Kato Show” at all. Though Bruce is clearly the best thing about it, at the end of the day, he was still Britt Reid’s sidekick, relegated to facing off against the Boy Wonder in a fight scene when the shows famously crossed over:

Bruce knew this too. That’s why he worked so hard to break that bamboo ceiling throughout his (too brief) life and prove he was no one’s Asian sidekick.

6 comments

  1. Rebecca Sun beat me to it, I think Cole Horibe would be a perfect fit for Iron Fist! Do you know if they are planning to travel to other cities for Kung Fu Broadway?

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