BE LIKE LEE: Cesar Cipriano as material arts expert, actor and disco dancer Bruce Lee in "Be Like Water: Production photos by Michael Lamont
Solo show artist and writer Dan Kwong new play is in the final week of a World Premiere run at East-West Players, and his first multi-character piece is billed as a drama, yet is staged as light-hearted comedy. That may be what is confusing the performers, audience and critics. “Be Like Water” also illustrates a Downtown dilemma: reading reviews to find how to spend an evening. The Los Angeles Times loathed to dislike it, Downtown News loathed to like it, and media sponsor Rafu Shimpo found nothing wrong with it.
I went anyway and wasn’t disappointed at all.
The younger cast members are better than some reviews would have you believe, as they have the charm, anger, and energy of being 14 year olds trying to find their way to adulthood, and falling short.
At the center is the tomboy eighth-grader and martial arts expert Tracy (Saya Tomioka) who saddled with being an adolescent in the late 70s and handling the expectations of Kimiko (Pam Hayashida), her Japanese-American mother who wishes she showed more traditional femininity. Yet, Tracy shares a bond with her Chinese-American father, Frank, (Michael Sun Lee), who shares her adoration of Bruce Lee and while carefully not pushing it on her.
Tomioka handles the stage with a physical grace, while Hayashida and Sun Lee deftly handle playwright Kwong’s venerable skill in writing monologues that forward story line while allowing character depth.
Tracy has two other battles. One is with a classmate Tina (Ariel Rivera) who leads “the cheerleader Mafia” and is on a straight path to be an 80s era consumer. The other is a classmate bully Jeremy (Jonathan Decker) who considers any one Asian is really only a few steps away from being Vietnamese.
It appears she will struggle with it alone until she is visited by the ghost of Bruce Lee (Cesar Cipriano) who appears via domestic forms of water; water glass on a desk, a washer in a laundry mat, or a fishbowl.
Cipriano gives a glimpse at 70s pop culture was fused by pop philosophy and sold with charisma and sincerity, and how Bruce Lee embodied that phenomenon. It even shows that same sense of humor and media awareness, as the Bruce Lee is seen in his fictitious personas, ranging from the film “Enter the Dragon” and from the Batman television series where he once played Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato.
Tracy is also busy balancing a friendship with a boy, also named Bruce Lee (Shawn Huang), who finds escape from two of his own demons; being the school nerd and having the fate of being named Bruce Lee. He is the king of his own moves thanks to an ever present disco soundtrack in his head, and is set up to steal the show on each entrance, which he nearly does. (The real showstopper happens when both Bruce Lees’ dance to the same beat).
The disco theme may be a Greek chorus of the 70s to many, and I did like the dancing Ninjas, but the more effective musical transitions came from the non-disco songs of the decade. One of the shows biggest laughs comes when husband and wife rekindle an affection, and the moment is marked by a Marvin Gaye song that has escape the 70s untainted.
Why this play is set in Chicago is unclear. It may be a simple matter of changing the setting from 1978 to 1979, the year the Chicago White Sox held a Disco Demolition Night. Clearly, it would add irony to the adoration of disco, and be a setting for a climactic standoff between Tracy and Jeremy on the night and a city was overrun by a strange hate of a musical culture.
At its best, “Be Like Water” has you believe you are watching the powerful charisma of a cultural icon, whose spiritual presence survived the mirrored ball decade as he explains the power of the flow of water. I will use my token martial arts analogy––that seems to be a requirement when writing about this production––to say the play can easily change from an entertaining demonstration of round house kicks in empty air to a more powerful series of one hand punches.
Here’s hoping it gets a reincarnation and appears once again.
"Be Like Water" / East West Players, In association Cedar Grove OnStage / By Dan Kwong / Directed by Chris Tashima / David Henry Hwang Theater
Remaining Shows / Wed 10.08.08 (8pm), Thursday, 10.09. 08 (8pm), Friday, 10.10.08 (8pm) Saturday 10.11, (8pm) and Sun 10.12 ( 2pm)