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With Be Like Water, East West Players proudly (and loudly) asserts Bruce Lee's Asian American connection.
We all know the impact of Bruce Lee on Asian American males. He is an inspiring, masculine male role model. At the same time he also makes it easy to mock and caricaturize Asian men as martial arts mavens. Not surprisingly, countless Asian American films like They Call Me Bruce and Finishing the Game have appropriated the icon. Now, East West Players takes Bruce to the stage.
Be Like Water is the first full-length play written by Don Kwon, an international performance artist. Set five years following the untimely demise of Bruce Lee in 1973, the play centers on Tracy Fong (Saya Tomioka), a 13 year-old tomboy. She's half-Chinese, half-Japanese, but a 100% Bruce Lee diehard. Coincidently, her best friend is a boy named Bruce Lee (Shawn Huang), who gets teased and bullied for having the name. Tracy, a practitioner of Bruce Lee's martial arts philosophy Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist), protects young Bruce from bullies, much to his consternation.
Bruce Lee's impact on Asian American men is undeniable, but what does he mean to Asian American females? His philosophy and charisma has transcended race, but what about gender? His films celebrate Asian male masculinity (mostly his) -- not exactly the most relatable attribute for women. So why is Tracy such a huge fan? Perhaps it's because his films also represented individual strength and standing up to oppressors without compromise, ideals that Tracy respects. She embraces everything about him, while young Bruce, whose sole interest lies in disco dancing, idolizes Abba instead. As her personal problems with bullies and her mom pile up, the ghost of Bruce Lee (Cesar Cipriano) decides to pay her visit.
Aside from Tracy's issues with her mom, the main conflict comes from her Caucasian classmate Jeremy (Jonathan Decker), who reminds me of William Zabka's character in The Karate Kid: the easy to hate blond bully. Except Jeremy is even worse, disappointingly regulated to a one-dimensional racist with no rhyme or reason; there's no explanation on why he's so racist and antagonizes young Bruce.
There's a more nuanced and believable tension between Tracy's parents, Frank (Michael Sun Lee) and Kimiko (Pam Hayashida). Frank, with his peculiar Chicago accent, is the open-minded, comedic foil to the more serious and conservative Kimiko. Their interracial relationship provides some slight racial tension, especially relevant to the WWII generation. Frank complains about the Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese, to which she quips "Do I look like an imperial solider?" She was also a victim of the war, having lost years to forced internment at Tule Lake. There's of course the inevitable conflict between the pugnacious Tracy and the image-conscious Kumiko, who wants her to be a normal, upstanding girl. Essentially, the obligatory mother-daughter conflict. It's done well, but by the time the subplot reaches its climax, it loses some emotional impact due to Tracy's excessive screaming throughout the play.
Tracy and to a lesser degree, young Bruce, are slightly grating; when they aren't talking normally, they are yelling. I attended the play with a friend, an actor with theater experience, and he wore a cringe during most of those scenes. More nuanced performances and dialogue (i.e. less anger) would have helped. For a play titled Be Like Water, it doesn't quite flow smoothly. There are too many short scenes, leading to constant scene transitions that disrupt the flow of an already thin plot.
A pleasant surprise is Cipriano's impeccable rendition of Bruce Lee. His physique, mannerisms, movement, and for the most part, Bruce Lee's Cantonese accent, are spot on. Cipriano wears a different Lee outfit in each of his scenes, ranging from his shirt in Fist of Fury to his iconic yellow track suit from Game of Death...and even his Kato outfit from The Green Hornet. As Bruce Lee, he continuously drops factoids about his life, death, legacy, and philosophy.
Interspersed between some of the dramatic scenes are brief fight scenes choreographed by Diana Lee Inosanto (Bruce Lee's god-daughter and director of The Sensei) where the ghost of Bruce Lee dukes it out with random ninjas. Sometimes these segue into dance numbers, featuring music from the era. This was another way of paying tribute to Lee's impressive cha-cha dance resume, which Cipriano also aptly emulates. Choreographed by Blythe Matsui, who worked on EWP's colorful, anime hip-hop take on Pippin earlier this year, the dance sets provided some levity to the ongoing drama. The show's most entertaining moment occurs the when both Bruce Lees, live and dead, young and old, dance synchronized to The Village People's "YMCA."
Despite some unevenness in the plot and dialogue, Be Like Water is very entertaining a play, but an even better tribute to Bruce Lee.
Date Posted: 10/17/2008