Bruce Lee's legacy treads the boards
Cole Horibe, who plays Bruce Lee on stage, hopes to carry on the martial arts legend's legacy of breaking down barriers, writes Richard James Havis
Bruce Lee is not only a legend to Hongkongers and fans of martial arts films. He's also an iconic figure for Asian Americans, who sometimes claim the San Francisco-born actor as one of their own. As the first Asian to become a superstar in the West, Lee was an inspiration for those seeking to succeed in the entertainment industry; he also delivered an almighty boost to the confidence of Asian-American men.
Hawaiian-born Cole Horibe, who plays Lee in the musical Kung Fu - by playwright David Henry Hwang - at New York's Signature Theatre, shares those feelings about the legend. But, as a taekwondo Olympic medallist, Horibe thought of Lee first and foremost as a martial artist, rather than a cultural icon or movie star. "I always admired him as a martial artist, especially since I was into martial arts myself. He was the real deal, he could fight," the 28-year-old says.
"I was very interested in jeet kune do, his fighting style, as it was a kind of mixed martial arts style, which was unusual back then. It was only when I studied his life story for the show that I grew to admire him more as a person, and realised what he did for Asian Americans. He showed we could be strong."
Horibe certainly demonstrates Lee's strength - both mental and physical - on stage in Kung Fu which, thankfully, is more of a play with music than a musical. Hwang's script focuses on Lee's early life, taking in his time as a child actor in Hong Kong, his martial arts classes in the US, his early forays into acting in Hollywood, and his eventual return to Hong Kong to pursue his career here.
Although some of the details have been adapted to suit the format of the play, it's generally true to the spirit and events of Lee's life. Interest comes from Hwang's Asian-American perspective, and the way he portrays Lee as a rebel who refuses to be cowed by the racism, subtle or otherwise, that blocks his career in Hollywood.
Horibe says he was surprised to discover how much he empathised with Lee when he began his research for the show. "I share a lot of Bruce's beliefs, and I did not realise that until I started to study him. I have the same aspirations as he did," he says, referring to Lee's desire to be treated with the same professional respect that Caucasian actors were shown in Hollywood.
"The problems that I face are nothing like those which Bruce faced back in those days, but they are still there," says Horibe. "It has definitely got better - and a lot of that is down to what he achieved - but there are still problems for Asian-American actors, and it's still not an ideal place for us. We still haven't had an Asian-American leading man in Hollywood, for instance. That's something I would love to see happen in my lifetime."
Horibe won the role when Hwang's wife spotted him performing on season nine of the television dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance?. The producers and Hwang were having difficulty casting Kung Fu, and were excited to find a martial artist who could dance, especially as Horibe bore a slight resemblance to Lee.
Horibe's dance moves have been incorporated into the stage show, and pretty much make up the "musical" part; there is no singing. His kung fu dancing is powerful and elegant, and not as naff as it sounds; the dances look like fight moves. It's more West Side Story than Dance the Kung Fu.
Horibe, who has studied various styles of kung fu as well as taekwondo, says he was at first reluctant to incorporate martial arts moves into his dance routines. "At dance classes you learn how to develop your own movements. At first, I focused on contemporary dance moves and didn't use anything from my martial arts training. People would … ask me why I wasn't using my martial arts moves in the dancing. But I hated the idea of that, so I always refused to try it. But so many people encouraged me, I gave in - and it became my dance style."
It is, he says, an unconscious act of creation: "I'll start to design a dance sequence, and I'll just let the martial arts element come through naturally."
As one would expect from a Hwang play, Kung Fu contains much serious drama, with the dances providing lively punctuations. Lee's relationship with his father, Cantonese opera star and film actor Lee Hoi-chuen, is a primary theme, along with his relationship with wife Linda and, later, his young son Brandon.
Lee's personal life was hard to research, Horibe says. "It was very difficult to find out what went on behind the closed doors of his life, and especially hard to work out his relationship with Linda."
Horibe felt on safer ground with the martial arts, as he already had a good knowledge of Lee's jeet kune do style. This is a mixture of karate, wing chun kung fu and Western boxing, which he studied for the footwork along with fencing. Lee's willingness to take from different styles was derided in the 1970s by the purists of the martial arts world.
Horibe, by contrast, thinks it's cool. "I had spent time studying various martial arts styles since I was four," he says. "So I already knew a bit about jeet kune do and the movements. I researched it more, and then I just let go and let myself move forward with it naturally. I relied on my own instincts as a martial artist, rather than directly trying to imitate Bruce."
Like Lee, Horibe wants to continue down the path of both martial arts and acting. But he admits he is feeling the pull of performance more than fighting. "I've wanted to be an actor since I was a child. It's weird, as I went down a strange path and studied martial arts, before finally getting into acting. One reason that I learnt different kinds of martial arts, and dancing, is because I knew it would help me become more adaptable as an actor," he says.
"I want to do everything. I would love to do an action film with martial arts, that would be a lot of fun. I would like to do drama, too. My dream is to be able to play leading roles as an American actor, not an Asian-American actor.
"It's like picking up on Bruce Lee's legacy."