By Tracy Wang
Written by Lauren Yee, and directed by Eric Ting, ‘The Great Leap’ is yet another leap by Yee, as it is the second Seattle premiere of her work, since last fall’s ‘King of the Yees’. Touched upon the topics of China’s Cultural Revolution, Asian American identity, basketball, and family, this play again rings with Yee’s distinctive voice, and asks us what the most important things are in our lives.
It was 1971; Saul (Bob Ari) was in China, getting to know a Chinese basketball team, and helping them to become better players. A coach who swears more often than he talks, Saul spread the words that no Chinese team will ever beat an American team, and that he brought basketball to China (which is quickly corrected by Wen Chang).
1989, eighteen years after his first trip to China, Saul is struggling with his team, and relying on a victory game at the exhibition game in China to make sure the University of San Francisco continues his contract for the next season. However, under the leadership of Wen Chang (Joseph Steven Yang), once the interpreter for Saul in 1971, the Chinese team is better than ever, and it will take a lot more for the USF team to beat it.
Manford (Linden Tailor), a Chinese American basketball star in the San Francisco Chinatown, is desperate to join the team of USF, and finds a sense of belonging and purpose within it. Will Saul let him join the team? Will he be able to help the team of USF win?
A play that is centered so much on Chinese history, and the life of Asian American in San Francisco, ‘The Great Leap’ manages to use character relationship, especially that of Saul and Wen Chang, and their interactions to represent something much bigger, something that hints at the China-America relationship throughout the years.
From 1971 to 1989, we get a glimpse of the power dynamic between China and the United States through character development. Once reserved, quiet and relatively-dependent on Saul for opinion and ideas, Wen Chang is perhaps the one character who changes the most. Eighteen years make him into a powerful figure in the communist party, and now, he becomes the one who speaks, and dictates Saul’s choices on whether Manford gets to play in the exhibition game or not.
An overall satirical tone, ‘The Great Leap’ drips with many stereotypical images of Chinese and Chinese Americans (the Charlie Chan clan, Chinese being short etc.), and presents a Caucasian coach who has all those stereotypes in mind. Uncomfortable at times for the Chinese or Chinese American audiences who are aware of those stereotypes to watch, we find these stereotypes being used to showcase even more of the power dynamic, where the United States under Yee’s pen manages to make itself look awfully arrogant, while the China in the play looks much more sensible.
To pair with the tension-filled script that fires all the time, Wilson Chin designed a set that is the perfect backdrop for their battle of the mouths as well as minds. A normal basketball court at the ground level, the whole stage has an upper level that opens to be the nicely-decorated study of Wen Chang. The details of the stage is stunning, though the second half of the play utilizes the set better, and the pace becomes much quicker.
Ultimately a tale of the heart, ‘The Great Leap’ concludes at a hopeful and yet sombre tone, where Wen Chang finally breaks free from his duty to the country, and the restraint he has been practicing till that point. However, though free to be the person he has always wanted and yet feared to be, he faces the consequence of his action, as a tank slowly but surely comes at him. The imminent price of his freedom of mind scorches our minds, and forces us to think about how we want to live, and whether it is more important to score for points or score for the meaning of life.
‘The Great Leap’ is playing at Seatte Repertory Theatre’s Leo K. Theatre till April 22. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit: https://seattlerep.org/Plays/1718/GL/Synopsis