It’s not easy being 14, especially when you’re different from the other kids.  That’s what Chinese-Japanese-American Tracy (Saya Tomioka) has discovered in her Uptown Chicago neighborhood in the year 1978.  Unlike her popular classmate Tina (Ariel Rivera), an Asian teen Farrah Fawcett clone, Tracy would rather watch Bruce Lee movies than go to Nisei dances. Unlike her unfortunately named classmate Bruce Lee (Shawn Huang), Tracy would rather practice kung fu moves than dance the latest disco steps to “Disco Inferno” or “He’s The Greatest Dancer.”

Tracy’s parents don’t understand her, but Tracy is not their only problem. Her Chinese-American dad Frank feels uncomfortable being the only Chinese in his wife’s Nisei circle of friends, while Tracy’s Japanese-American mom Kimiko complains of never having been accepted by the Chinese community, whose long memories reach back to WWII war crimes.

When a blue-eyed blond bully (Jonathan Decker) attempts to beat up DiscoBoy (aka Bruce), Tracy scares him away with kung fu, which doesn’t please her mom in the least. “Anybody named Bruce Lee is going to have to put up with a lot of crap,” Kimiko tells Tracy.  “They should have called him Poindexter,” though Frank is proud that Tracy defended her friend.

Well, friend is not exactly what Bruce is to Tracy.  In fact, Tracy doesn’t actually have any friends, at least not until the ghost of the real Bruce Lee appears in a glass of water on her bedroom table and begins imparting words of wisdom.  “Be like water, soft and flexible,” he tells her, and later, “Cleanse your spirit as you would your laundry,” and “Don’t think. Feel.”

If Be Like Water, a world premiere play by Dan Kwong directed by Chris Tashima, sounds a bit like an hour-long 1970s Afterschool Special, that’s pretty much how it comes across on East West Players’ Little Tokyo stage, despite its running time of nearly two and a half hours (including intermission).  Previous EWP world premieres like Julia Cho’s Durango or Jeanne Sakata’s Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi have set the bar high. If only Be Like Water had the brilliant writing and acting of those productions.

Kwong’s dramedy is not without its plusses, the chief being a winning performance by Cesar Cipriano as the ghost of movie star Bruce Lee.  Perfectly mimicking Lee’s Cantonese-flavored English, and with the body and moves of the martial arts great, Cipriano follows his amusing turn as Lewis in Pippin with another charming performance.  Pam Hayashida is also very good as Kimiko, especially when she recalls her own mother burning her prom dress because she dated a white boy. Michael Sun Lee has a powerful monolog in which Frank recalls how Bruce Lee turned his world upside down by giving him someone to look up to for the first time and by winning over the Caucasian movie audience who’d previously seen Asians only in negative terms.  As a dancer, Young Huang proves to be an Asian teen Travolta (circa Saturday Night Fever) with his precision disco moves (choreographed by Blythe Matsui).  There’s also a great scene in which Bruce Lee’s ghost and teen Bruce Lee dance to the Village People’s Y.M.C.A., the former doing kung fu moves (choreographed by Diana Lee Inosanto and Ron Balicki) and the latter doing his best Travolta.

Be Like Water could stand to be trimmed. At 125 minutes (plus a 15 minute intermission), it’s at least 30 minutes overlong, and could take less time to get to its point, which could also be clarified. Kwong’s dialog could benefit from a bit of the sophistication of Cho’s and Sakata’s writing. And though the young cast members are clearly giving it their all, they could do with more stage experience.  I also wish that the play’s sole white character weren’t be such an unredeemingly ugly stereotype.

José López has created an excellent, moody lighting design, with an especially lovely effect at the play’s end in which the entire stage is lit with gradually brightening stars. Dave Iwasaki’s sound design features a great selection of 1970s disco hits, and he has composed some fine atmospheric original music to punctuate scenes and accompany scene changes.  Naomi Yoshida’s costumes are nostalgic polyester perfection. Akeime Mitterlehner’s set design has an appropriately Asian feel, but Kwong’s script requires too many scene changes, with the actors doing double duty as stage hands. (It seems a bit odd to see mean teen Jeremy helping his nemeses move the furniture between scenes.)

Despite the best efforts of all involved, Be Like Water is a letdown after the sensational Pippin.  Hopefully, it will be but a slight misstep in a season which includes the upcoming The Joy Luck Club, which looks to be a Fall highlight, and a showcase for the best Asian American actresses in town.  I can’t wait to see what director Jon Lawrence Rivera brings to Amy Tan’s epic story this coming November.

East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 17, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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