Photo: Alessandra Mello.

The Great Leap

Center Repertory Company, Walnut Creek, CA

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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I don’t usually see theater in Walnut Creek, the manicured suburb east of San Francisco. But I wanted to see Lauren Yees’ 2017 play, “The Great Leap.” I loved her oddly hypnotic “Cambodian Rock Band,” developed at Berkeley Rep and later produced there in 2023. So, I was curious to see the Center Repertory Company production. And I’m happy that I did.

In part an homage to the playwright’s basketball-playing father, “The Great Leap” consists of the unlikely but essentially winning combination of basketball, international politics, and family history. Even the title is a double entendre — the jump shot and the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961).

The first act begins in 1989 with San Francisco high school senior Chinese-American Manford (outstanding James Aaron Oh) pressing the tough, foul-mouthed University of San Francisco basketball coach Saul (first-rate Cassidy Brown) to let Manford join the USF college basketball team. And Manford won’t be dissuaded by Saul’s caustic rejections and dismissals. Instead, the firmer Saul says no, the more bravado Manford shows. And this is despite Manford’s just burying his mother.

We learn that Manford wants to join the USF team to go to China with the team and play in its upcoming exhibition game against Beijing University. The game seems crucial, at least on China’s part, since China had been humiliated by the US’s mocking China’s lack of B-ball skills years earlier.

Coach Saul had gone to Beijing 18 years earlier to help Chinese coach Wen Chang (excellent Edward Chen) learn American-style B-ball. Although the Chinese had played since the early missionaries brought the game over, Saul taught Wen Chang the hard-hitting, aggressive, take-no-prisoners style that makes the US game so exciting. Now Saul, whose private and professional life is in disarray, hopes to trounce the Chinese. But, not so fast, the audience learns. Wen Chang was well-taught by Saul, and the seven-foot-tall Chinese players make winning look easy.

The exhibition game is held concurrently with the Tiananmen Square demonstrations at which an anonymous Chinese man bravely staved off a column of tanks with only his body. That courageous act is antithetical to how most young Communist Chinese learned to behave. Wen Chang explains, “… growing up, you did not want to be someone. You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Because being someone could get you killed.”

The first act is primarily the set-up for the more exciting and engaging connections surrounding the US/China game in Act II. Who will win? Why has Manford really come to China? Will he get to play in the big game? What has Coach Wen Chang learned from the American way of life? What about the political crisis in Beijing? The conclusion of “The Great Leap” is very satisfying, with the sports, politics, and family threads knitting together, if a bit too neatly.

“The Great Leap” runs through April 17, 2024, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm. Its length is approximately 115 minutes, including one intermission. Masks are encouraged but optional. For tickets ($42-$70) and more information, or the box office at (925) 943-7469.

By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved

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