Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap at Seattle Rep

Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap at the Seattle Repertory Theatre explores the ways in which sports can overcome conflicting cultural barriers. Yee takes her audience on a whirlwind journey from the bay area to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Yee was born and raised in San Francisco, like her new play’s character, Manford. Her plays draw upon her childhood and family history for inspiration. In 2017 she received the National Art’s Club’s Kesselring prize for her work as an emerging playwright.

The Great Leap follows the intertwining stories of two basketball coaches. Saul, played by Bob Ari, coaches the University of San Francisco’s basketball team. During the early 70s (the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution), Saul pays a visit to Beijing University where he helps launch a collegiate basketball team. Here he meets Wen Chang, played by Joseph Steven Yang, who he elects as head basketball coach. Saul is known to claim responsibility for bringing basketball to China and eighteen years later, during the height of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, he must return with his USF team for an exhibition game against Beijing University. Saul’s deteriorating coaching career makes a win by USF a necessity. So he enlists the help of Manford, played by Linden Tailor, a high school senior and gifted point guard who also happens to be Chinese American.

Basketball acts as a gateway into a country that has shut its doors from the rest of the world. It allows Yee to explore some cultural clashes of the West and Communist China that resulted from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. A reoccurring theme this brought out was the struggle between being no one or being someone, whether it’s best to blend in or stand out. These clashes take the form of dialogue between the two basketball coaches. Saul urges the players to take what’s theirs while Wen Chang reminds them to wait their turn. The langauge barriers give way to humorous misunderstandings between them. Wen Chang takes Saul’s many crude metaphors and uses of slang literally and must translate it into language that his Chinese players will understand. Wen Chang is shocked when Saul demands that the players run “suicides” and instead tells the players to run furiously, “like your turning the pages of your little red book.” This dialogue gives Yee the opportunity to show off her witty and edgy writing-style. It kept me on my toes the entire night.

Ari did a fantastic job portraying the washed-up star point guard turned failing basketball coach from New York City. Everything down to his impressive East Coast accent convinced me he truly was the crude, hard-ass coach he made himself out to be. Yang, his counterpart, also had an amazing performance and the two complimented each other perfectly. For a cast made up of only four members, each actor had a great presence on the stage and their story felt complete.

The entire show was performed on a stage resembling a basketball court. This clever design lent itself to the idea that basketball is a platform for communication between two opposing ideals. (Basketball is the only Western sport that was never banned by the Communist party.) Whether they were portraying Beijing University’s first basketball practice or Manford getting lost among Tiananmen Square protests, the stage remained a basketball court.

The beginning is a tad slow but when the play takes off it remains exciting and engaging through the end. Some parts of this story felt a little implausible. Like cousin Connie’s wealth of knowledge on the Communist Party thanks to her study abroad trip as an American student to Communist China. However, this did not interfere with my enjoyment of the production.

The Great Leap is funny and enjoyable from start to finish. Yee tells a story that isn’t often told, and it’s one that deserves more listeners. Despite the context of this play, the story is rather relatable. Wen Chang, who always waits his turn strives to be a no one, is finally inspired to take a stand. It is a moving story of standing up for yourself and knowing your own worth.

Get your tickets to The Great Leap now. It was a full house on opening night.

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St, Seattle, WA 98109, shows Tues. through Sun. until April 22.

Tickets: http://www.seattlerep.org/Buy/Tickets/Production/6391

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