This was originally published in Theatre Is Easy.
By Lauren Yee; Directed by Taibi Magar
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.24.18
Atlantic Theater Company, 330 West 16th Street
BD Wong in The Great Leap. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: As nations vie to build friendships with China, the country’s dark history of is often ignored or forgotten. In The Great Leap, Lauren Yee thankfully refuses to allow her audience to forget.
Set in the early summer of 1989, the University of San Francisco basketball team is preparing to play a “friendship” game in Beijing. Manford (Tony Aidan Vo), a local Chinese-American high school student, accosts a USF Basketball Coach (Ned Eisenberg) in a desperate bid to join the team next month in Beijing. Although Coach Saul is adamantly against such a reckless and aggressive player, he is eventually won over by Manford’s undeniable skill and gritty determination to prove that he is a true basketball star, not just for a Chinatown boy. Exquisitely paired against the boorish and foul-mouthed Coach Saul is his friend and Chinese counterpart, Wen Chang, the complacent and composed coach in Beijing, played to pitch-perfection by BD Wong.
Although the topics of international diplomacy and competitive sports may seem like disparate themes, Yee’s fine writing and fiery wit allows the two subjects to intertwine effortlessly. Even her title The Great Leap is an eloquent play on words, evoking basketball agility and Mao’s failed “Great Leap Forward” campaign. By portraying the two teams' vastly different playing styles, Yee makes it clear how ambition and victory have vastly different definitions in each culture. For the Chinese, blending into a uniform society that does what it is told is much of what defines a successful life. Conversely, the ego of American players is endless, ensuring that not only will they always stand out, they will almost always win.
Although tackling any facet of the complex Sino-American relationship is an ambitious and arduous undertaking, Lauren Yee boldly rises to the occasion. Yee’s expertise on the subject is drawn from her family’s upbringing in San Francisco’s Chinatown, as well as her father’s firsthand experience playing for the USA in a friendship basketball game in China. Moving between time periods, frequent asides and unseen sports on stage is no easy feat, yet Yee’s script is bolstered by the dynamic and seemingly effortless direction of Taibi Magar. It might seem curious that a play centered around basketball never actually shows someone playing it, but by strategically breaking the fourth wall, supported by intricate lights and sound (effectively provided by Eric Southern and Broken Chord), Magar is able to successfully mirror the dramatic build and nail-biting tension of a high-stakes game.
Ali Ahn does a fine job as Connie, the Asian-American activist and Manford’s pseudo-guardian. Veteran actor Ned Eisenberg is scene-stealing as a fast-talking, New York wise guy, complete with charisma and four letter words that puzzle, befuddle, and horrify his poor translator. But it is BD Wong’s portrayal of Wen Chang that brings the play to its knees. His tender portrayal of a man who had survived both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution feels stirring and soul-shattering, particularly when Wong finds himself trapped in a position to coach what he does not know, love what he cannot touch, and force himself to stand still as the world around him burns. Echoing fans of basketball, The Great Leap is worth all the hype. Join the Atlantic Theatre Company as they leap into greatness—you won’t be disappointed.
(The Great Leap plays at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, through June 24, 2018. The running time is 1 hour 40 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30; additional performances on Monday June 11 and Tuesday June 19 at 7:30. Tickets are $50 and are available by calling 866-811-4111 or at atlantictheater.org.)
The Great Leap is by Lauren Yee. Directed by Taibi Magar. Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata. Costume Design by Tilly Grimes. Lighting Design by Eric Southern. Sound and Original Compositions are by Broken Chord. Production Design by David Bengali. Movement Director is Jesse Perez. Production Stage Manager is Laura Smith. Production Manager is Ian Paul Guzzone. Assistant Stage Manager is Kaleigh Bernier.
The cast is Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg, Tony Aidan Vo, and BD Wong.