Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Sprint Right Over to See “The Great Leap”

Linden Tailor in The Great Leap (AdamsVisCom)
The Great Leap
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through April 22, 2018

If we were to attempt to publicly analyze talented, nationally acknowledged playwright Lauren Yee, we might start by suggesting that she’s been working out aspects of her relationship with her father, also pretty publicly, for a few years. Their relationship was explored, recently, in King of the Yees, performed here at ACT Theatre, where Larry Yee and Lauren are both characters in the play.

In her latest, world premiere (at Seattle Repertory Theatre and at Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company) The Great Leap, she says she mining her father’s love for basketball and his history of youthful play to explore a story about a Chinese American high school basketball player who loves the game as fiercely as any basketball-loving high school kid can love basketball – which is pretty fiercely.

But Yee also has serious intent and large canvases in mind which weave into her “small” family-style stories. Here, she contextualizes her play into the great leaps of change that China went through in the 20th Century. Using basketball, which is played world over, and a fictional matchup in 1989 of University of San Francisco and Beijing University, Yee introduces this teenager with a burning desire to go on that trip and play that exhibition game.

In order for Manford (an exciting, intense and engaging Linden Tailor) to join this team, he has to get the coach, Saul (gruff, no nonsense, clearly-comes-from-New-York-Jews Bob Ari) to agree that a short, unknown teen can really deliver the victory that Manford so cockily promises. Even though we are already sure that Manford will pull this off, watching it unfold is still great fun. Yee can write funny, smart dialogue!

We find out that Manford’s life is not going so well, that he never knew his father, and that his mother had recently died. He moved to live with a neighbor family where an older “cousin” Connie (a warmly bossy and caring Keiko Green) tries to watch out for him and help him finish high school. A clear tragedy from the beginning is that Manford did not understand his mother, particularly because she did not speak English very well and he did not speak much Chinese.

We also flash back to 1971, another key period in Chinese history, just as President Nixon is ready to “open” China to the world economy. Saul visits China then and acts as a teacher of “American style” basketball to a team of great athletes from ping pong, swimming, tennis and other sports assembled to play for Wen Chang (a beautifully subtle and contained Joseph Steven Yang), a party stalwart who finds himself absorbing American style self-assertiveness along with the lessons in not waiting to take your turn to throw and “it’s always your turn.”

These stories converge to great effect in the second act, with many “big” issues surfacing to contemplate. There are sports metaphors present like being able to successfully make free throws by standing still, and standing still might mean life passes you by, and stillness can sometimes be a way forward, and sometimes (most resonantly) standing still can land you a spot in history – referencing the man in Tiananmen Square standing in the path of Chinese tanks.

Dynamically staged by Eric Ting with great support from Christopher Kuhl (lighting), Wilson Chin (set design), Curtis Craig (sound) and Shawn Duan (projections), this is great entertainment. And by the end, also a great, chewy, sour-dough-bread-crust of a message. So, let’s hope Yee mines more from her family relationships for our viewing pleasure.

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