The Great Leap Is a Slam Dunk

Minneapolis audiences are pretty terrific for actors. Not to say we’re easy, but as a general rule, standing ovations ought to be the unexpected exception. Hand them out too often, and they become theatrical participation trophies. A good round of applause with perhaps a few discreet “woots” thrown in will do for most shows and are sufficiently gratifying to the performers. We ought to save the standing Os for the performances that truly deserve them—like this one.

The Great Leap was written by Lauren Yee and is directed by Desdemona Chiang, longtime collaborators. This performance marks their twin debuts for the Guthrie Theater, and they are starting off with a bang. The play tells the story of an ostensibly friendly 1989 exhibition game between the University of San Francisco and China’s National Men’s basketball teams—on the surface. The real story is simultaneously far more personal and political, tying in the impact of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to one family as an exemplar of how history molds and warps the future.

Lee Sellars (Saul) and Kurt Kwan (Wen Chang) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Great Leap.

Lee Sellars (Saul) and Kurt Kwan (Wen Chang) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Great Leap by Lauren Yee and directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Dan Norman

The Guthrie’s promotional copy for The Great Leap repeatedly stresses how you don’t need to know the backstory of the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. (However, since the first caused one of the biggest famines in human history, with between 18 and 55 million deaths, and the second, though slightly less murderous, still resonates in Chinese outlook to this day, it might be worth a wiki.) The Guthrie also emphasizes that one doesn’t have to understand the minutiae of basketball. For someone such as myself, unacquainted with sportsball in all its varied permutations (basket, foot, volley, base, kick . . . um, meat?), that was something of a relief. The disclaimers are entirely true but do come off as slightly defensive and, after seeing the play, potentially unnecessary. While basketball is the frame and China’s history the gallery wall, the picture presented by the play is a tightly woven, powerful drama that is in turns moving yet humorous, tragic and triumphant, and well worth watching for anyone who just loves good theater.

The story follows Manford (Lawrence Kao), a Chinese American high-school basketball star trying (for his own, undisclosed reasons) to join the University of San Francisco’s team before they head to the exhibition match in Beijing. For USF coach Saul (Lee Sellers), this is a chance to hold on to a fading career a while longer. For Wen Chang (Kurt Kwan), Saul’s former translator and now head coach of the China team, this is a chance to wipe out an offhand insult from 18 years before. Set in 1989, the play switches back and forth between that “present” and Saul’s first visit to China in 1971. The game—never as friendly as it was described—becomes more fraught as Manford finds himself caught up in the masses of students pouring into Tiananmen Square, with all the story’s strands tensely coming together on the court.

The sets, designed by Sara Ryung Clement, are spare but intensely evocative: a set of steps, a rusty metal porch door, and a bunch of boots transform the setting into depressed, industrial Oakland. A single basket and a light array, and suddenly the audience is ringside at the exhibition arena. The set pieces come sliding in from left, right, or above with the actors already in place, a clever conceit that emphasizes the snapshot nature of scenes that began before we were watching and will continue after we stop. At times, it feels like a manifestation of the tide of history carrying us along, willy-nilly. The dark negative space surrounding the lit pieces evokes the history (prior and unfolding) surrounding the events, molding the characters’ interactions with unseen fingers.

Complementing the physical set pieces is some very nice projected design by Tom Mays. Sometimes subtle, other times taking up the entire stage, the visuals help ground and contextualize the play’s action in a larger story that otherwise might have been beyond the capability of staged display. Sarah Pickett’s sound design, with scene interstitials full of late-stage synth-pop, grounds the audience in time while bringing (to some of us, anyway) a nostalgia-fueled smile.

But the power of the play comes from the sharp dialogue and well-realized characterizations. In 1971, Saul (Sellars) is loud, arrogant, and full of profanity-laced, in-your-face attitude. Sellars well captures the tone of a Bronx escapee and the quintessential ugly American. By contrast, Wen Chang (Kwan), his translator, is repressed, far more politically aware, and struggles to keep up with the guest’s more colorful metaphors. Chang delivers the larger picture to the audience in spotlighted asides that begin humorously but grow more powerful and moving as the play develops. Kwan’s stage presence gives each address an arresting power, whether delivering his early straight-faced quips or the more poignant later speeches.

Lee Sellars (Saul), Lawrence Kao (Manford), Kurt Kwan (Wen Chang), and Leah Anderson (Connie) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Great Leap.

Lee Sellars (Saul), Lawrence Kao (Manford), Kurt Kwan (Wen Chang), and Leah Anderson (Connie) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Great Leap by Lauren Yee and directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Dan Norman

Lawrence Kao brings a manic earnestness to Manford. He has excellent physicality throughout (seen best after Manford is accepted onto the USF team in an outstandingly ’80s triumphal dance). He perfectly encapsulates the character’s bravado, determination, and brashness, but doesn’t quite seem to adjust later on when more depth is required. He is, of course, portraying a callow high schooler, but overall Manford comes off a bit more one-note than was possibly intended.

Lauren Yee admits, “there’s usually a stand-in for me in every play.” In this case, the money’s on Connie, Manford’s “cousin” (really just friend of the family), played with unswerving sincerity by Leah Anderson. Unlike Manford, she is aware of the larger political strife roiling China at the time of the exhibition game, and is by turns maternal and fierce in her concern for Manford’s safety and life prospects.

The play is well and thoughtfully constructed. This is best seen in the portrayal of the exhibition itself, toward the play’s end. Rather than actually playing or projecting the match, Kao moves Manford around the court while a counterpoint chorus erupts from Chang, Connie, and Saul. Their constantly switching dialogue is skillfully passed back and forth, mirroring the imagined passing of the ball, and brilliantly serves to ratchet up the tension in a way that merely depicting the action would not.

And then comes the end. It is affecting, no doubt, and yet I find I have conflicting feelings. While it was powerful and moving on a personal level, I felt it almost too pat, and somewhat reductionist of the surrounding events. (I’m having to dance around this a bit, because spoilers.) Regardless, it serves as a fitting cap to the story, one worthy of debate in one of the Guthrie’s post-show discussion events (dates below).

Minor nitpicks aside, you should without question go see The Great Leap. You don’t need to know history, and you don’t need to like basketball—you just need to like well-acted, smartly written, evocatively staged great drama. And at the end, you will probably be like me, on your feet and applauding like mad.

The Great Leap is at the Guthrie Theater now through February 10, 2019. Post-show discussions will be held on Saturday, January 26, at 1:00 p.m.; Sunday, January 27, at 1:00 p.m.; and Saturday, February 2, at 1:00 p.m.

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