The Man Who Can Make Bruce Lee Talk

For his next feat, the playwright David Henry Hwang reimagines an icon.

  1. On a late summer morning, in a room far west on 42nd Street, Bruce Lee, who has yet to become the greatest martial artist of all time, is putting the moves on a young Japanese-American dancer.

    “Cannot fight the qi force,” Bruce informs her. “Energy. Between man and woman. Very powerful. So must allow the flow, the qi force to—”

    She interrupts him. “You’re using ancient Chinese philosophy? To get into my pants?”

    “Philosophy,” he says, “it should be practical.”

    The line got its laugh from the small group in attendance, including David Henry Hwang, who wrote it. As he listened to the first 70 pages of his new play, “Kung Fu,” his face softened. The brashness of the Bruce Lee he is creating tickled him. The only thing that betrayed his anxiety was his right hand, clamped so firmly over his mouth that it seemed to become his center of gravity. He learned long ago not to reveal his feelings.

    A quarter-century after “M. Butterfly” won him the Tony Award, Hwang, a first-generation Chinese-American, still bends under the lifelong weight of expectations from his high-achieving immigrant family. He will come to sparkling life on a panel or at a lectern; he will give a pithy quote about multiculturalism to the media. But the real Hwang, the one with the wicked sense of humor, the soaring emotionalism of an opera diva and the pounding anger of a neglected child, is glimpsed almost exclusively onstage. So today, it is Bruce Lee who gets all the best lines, the ones Hwang would ne...