The Theatricalized Body of Bruce Lee in David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu

April 11, 2014 - 2:30pm to 4:00pm

Presented By:

Esther Kim Lee

Hutchinson 154

The Theatricalized Body of Bruce Lee in David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu

David Henry Hwang is the most recognized Asian American playwright and the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play for M. Butterfly in 1988. This talk examines his latest full-length play, Kung Fu, which is about the life and work of the martial arts icon Bruce Lee. The play opened in February of this year at New York City’s Signature Theatre, which commissioned the play and devoted the 2013-14 season to Hwang’s oeuvre. Hwang intended to write Kung Fu as a musical but later decided against it. What has instead resulted is what can be called a “dancicle,”a style of theatre in which realistic scenes and highly choreographed dance/fighting sequences co-exist onstage. Throughout his writing career, Hwang has frequently used choreography in his plays, and Kung Fu represents an exploration of what he has described as a “Chinese American” style of theatre.

This paper interrogates this style by focusing on how Hwang dramatizes the Asian American body in his plays. Hwang's style echoes the style of Cantonese opera, which he frequently references in his plays, but at the same time, the style is unequivocally in the tradition of American theatre. By using theories of the body, movement, and choreography, I argue that the Asian American body Hwang creates for the stage is defined theatrically. The racialized Asian body onstage is not defined by its skin color or phenotypical traits. Rather, Hwang’s Asian American bodies are made real through theatricalized movements that require skill and labor. The talk problematizes how racial identities are theatrically embodied by Hwang’s characters and how he makes Bruce Lee quintessentially Asian American in Kung Fu.

Location: Hutchinson Hall, Room 154

Bio of Presenter: Esther Kim Lee is Associate Professor in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received Ph.D. in theatre history, literature, and criticism from the Ohio State University and taught theatre and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  She is the author of A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which received the 2007 Award for Outstanding Book given by Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the editor of Seven Contemporary Plays from the Korean Diaspora in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2012). She is the Editor of Theatre Survey, the flagship journal of the American Society for Theatre Research. Her current projects include a book on the Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang.