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Life of Bruce Lee Takes the Stage in 'Kung Fu'

Bruce Lee in a 1973 publicity photo.

Bruce Lee in a 1973 publicity photo.

Welcome to American Mosaic from VOA Learning English.

I’m June Simms.

On the show today, we play music from "The Boss," Bruce Springsteen.

But first, we go to New York to check out a new off-Broadway play.

Bruce Lee 'Dansical'

"Kung Fu" is the name of a new play about America's most famous martial artist, the late actor Bruce Lee. Playwright David Henry Hwang centered his work on Lee's young adulthood. Marsha James tells us more about the play at the Signature Theater.

Bruce Lee became an actor as a young child. He also studied dance and the Chinese fighting style Kung Fu while growing up in Hong Kong. He was an expert in both by his teen years. At that time, he returned to the United States, the country of his birth.

Lee worked as a dance and Kung Fu teacher in Seattle, Washington during college. Playwright David Henry Hwang represents that period of Bruce Lee's life in his play, "Kung Fu." Mr. Hwang says he first tried to write the play as a musical. But, he says dance pieces worked better than songs in the story.

"It's got 17 dance numbers, a lot of fighting. This is something that really I don't think has been done before, at least in America, which is to create what I'm calling a "dansical," a show which is a combination of drama and dance."

Mr. Hwang is best known for his plays "M. Butterfly" and "Golden Child." Like those works, "Kung Fu" is concerned with questions of Asian American identity and prejudice. As a young actor in Hollywood, Bruce Lee found himself offered only small, racially predictable parts. Hwang represents these experiences in a scene where Lee talks to a television producer. The producer wants him to play Kato in the superhero series "The Green Hornet."

"Every time I see the bowing, scraping Chinaman with the long pigtail, I want to smash the TV!"

"I agree. The way Oriental people are portrayed by Hollywood: villains, enemy soldiers, comic relief, it makes me sick. In my project, you would play a completely different kind of character."

"The hero."

"Well, he works with the hero, and he's a hero, too."

Kato, of course, was not the hero but the assistant to the hero, the Green Hornet. Kato is a martial artist in the series and the part made Lee famous in the U.S. and Hong Kong.

But David Henry Hwang says Bruce Lee still did not receive offers for lead actor roles.

"As talented and as amazing as he was, (Lee) wasn't able to break the glass ceiling in American entertainment, and a lot of the second act of the play is about his struggles trying to get work as an actor in America. And at the end of the show he finally realizes that it's not going to happen for him in America, and he decides to go back to Hong Kong where he will eventually make the pictures establish him as the star that we know today."

The play ends before Lee gains stardom in the martial arts action movies that he filmed in Hong Kong in 1971 and 1972. Bruce Lee died of a brain swelling the following year at the age of 32. His first big Hollywood film, "Enter the Dragon," was released a short time after.

Some critics say "Kung Fu" is not an exciting drama. But almost all have praised its dance sequences.

High Hopes

Bruce Springsteen performing in 2012.

Bruce Springsteen performing in 2012.

Bruce Springsteen fans will recognize the album’s title track from the live version performed in the 1996 film “Blood Brothers.” The movie was a documentary of the singer’s reunion with the E Street Band.

The new studio recording of “High Hopes” is a much fuller version of the song. It includes horns and background singers. Tom Morello of the group Rage Against The Machine also performs on the song.

om Morello played guitar during Springsteen’s recent shows in Australia, and worked well with the group. In his liner notes to the album, Springsteen praised Morello for “pushing the rest of this project to another level.”

Morello’s guitar work can be heard on eight of the 12 songs. He also sings with Springsteen on “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The song was first heard as the title track to a solo acoustic album “The Boss” released in 1995.

Critics are mixed in their opinion of "High Hopes." Some say the album is not decisive as some of Springsteen’s “project” albums. Project albums are records with songs based on a single theme or sound. But Springsteen says he meant “High Hopes” to be a collection of what he calls “songs that deserved a home and a hearing.”

“Down In The Hole” is an example. Springsteen wrote this haunting song for his 2002 album “The Rising.” But, the artist said he left it off because he did not think it fit in with the other songs.

Danny Federici played organ on “Down In The Hole.” The longtime E Street Band member died in 2008.

You can also hear Clarence Clemons playing on the new album. The E Street Band saxophonist died in 2011. Clemons can be heard on the song “Harry’s Place.” It was also cut from the final version of “The Rising.”

A few years ago, there were reports that Bruce Springsteen was working on a gospel record. “Heaven’s Wall” sounds like it may have started as part of the reported project. But it has found a home on “High Hopes.”

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