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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
Want to know how to approach a David Henry Hwang play? Ask Francis Jue. He's been starring in Hwang's shows since the late 80s, from the Tony Award-winning production of M. Butterfly to the world premiere of Kung Fu, currently at Signature Theatre.
"Whether I'm playing a large part or a small part in David's work, I feel like he pays attention to the humanity and the context for that character," Jue says. "He challenges us to look at the world in a way that's really exciting. It's all about surface and what's beneath that surface."
Take Kung Fu, about the life of Bruce Lee (Cole Horibe). On the most superficial level, it's a martial arts spectacular, delivering tightly choreographed routines as Lee uses kung fu to become a renowned teacher and an internationally famous actor.
However, there's more to the show than flying kicks. Even at his peak, Lee grapples with Hollywood executives who don't think America's ready for an Asian celebrity, and perhaps more importantly, he clashes with his father Hoi-Chuen, a star of the Chinese opera who loathes his son's choices and essentially banishes him from the family.
Jue, who plays Hoi-Chuen, wants audiences to feel the weight of that conflict. "I think that David sometimes isn't taken as seriously as he should be because he's so entertaining," he says. "The challenge for me as a performer, for Leigh [Silverman] as a director, for Sonya [Tayeh] as a choreographer, is to look at this and say, 'Without proselytizing, without hitting anyone over the head, how can we say what we want to say and entertain people at the same time?'"
As an actor, that means clarifying the depth of Hoi-Chuen's connection to his son, even though it's never expressed in conventional ways. "It's really easy to think of him as a stereotypical 'tiger father,'" Jue says. "But at the same time, it comes from this view of the world that is borne out of having been colonized, having gone through revolutions, and coming from a culture where individuality is not viewed the same way it is in America."
So when the father fights with his son, he's doing more than disapproving. "[My character] comes from a culture where survival means being mutable, being able to adapt," Jue explains. "Doing that while honoring your family is really the whole goal of being a person.
"That's in high contrast to someone like Bruce Lee, who thinks the world should adapt to his particular gifts and who thinks the world should be able to acknowledge each of us as individuals, not who we are in relation to our families."
Hoi-Chuen's perspective is also implied when he performs songs and choreography from the Chinese opera. His small, subtle movements challenge Bruce's explosive kung fu, creating a visual representation of old-world tradition next to modern rebellion.
Of course, that means Jue has to master several demanding numbers. Some of them ---including a song he sings at the beginning of the show---were being revised until just a few weeks ago. He recalls, "It was on the first day of tech that I learned, 'Oh I'm singing? It's going to be a Chinese opera clown song? And it's in Cantonese? Really? Okay!'
"But that makes it exciting. It's exciting that David continues to whittle away at the essence of the play's central argument."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus