American Conservatory Theater’s “The Great Leap” — written by Lauren Yee and directed by Lisa Peterson — fuses history, sports and family drama into a hopeful story about finding identity. The play centers around young basketball star Manford Lum (Tim Liu) who travels to China to play the sport he loves and explore his late mother’s hometown and legacy.
Focusing on the relationship between China and the United States through basketball, “The Great Leap” narrows this dynamic down to the individual level by introducing character foils such as Wen Chang (BD Wong) and Saul (Arye Gross). The play alternates between two timelines — 1971 Beijing and 1989 San Francisco — and incorporates relatively well-known political occurrences to guide the audience through intense diplomatic relations.
The title of the play is a reference to the Great Leap Forward, the economic campaign led by the Communist Party of China in the mid-20th century. During its aftermath, two basketball coaches meet in Beijing. American coach Saul has been invited to mentor Chinese players and Wen Chang is chosen as Saul’s translator.
Despite the serious and heavily historical content, the production succeeds in establishing an almost lighthearted and comical atmosphere through dialogue and asides. The dramatization of the script emphasizes the cultural differences between the two coaches in a hilarious manner — mostly through playful banter. Wen often breaks away to vent to the audience about Saul’s language. He expresses confusion toward Saul’s use of slang and profanity and is constantly worried about having to relay inappropriate language to the Communist Party of China. For instance, when Saul says to him, “You fuck their shit up,” Wen Chang translates it literally to “You copulate on their feces?” When Saul tells the team to do suicides (runs), Wen takes the order literally, worrying about how he should censor such comments.
Contrary to the detailed script littered with cultural references, the set design of “The Great Leap” remains minimalistic throughout the majority of the show, which focuses the spotlight on the dynamic characters. The props exist simply to add layers to the characters or emphasize their roots. Scene transitions are incredibly fluid and smooth with furniture sliding in effortlessly from the side stage. The location and date of the scenes were displayed in colorful block letters on a large flat that moved up and down to depict various scenery. For instance, at the lowest point, the flat becomes a corridor of apartment complexes or hotel rooms. In other scenes, it would stay suspended in midair and project bleachers at the University of San Francisco or a stadium in Beijing. Utilizing such a mobile and versatile device gives the play great freedom of expression executed with minimal effort.
One scene in particular uses the flat as a way to conceal a character’s identity. While Wen Chang explains his wife’s story and her incredulous trip to America, the flat is again suspended in midair, and the audience can see the legs of a woman dribbling a basketball. The unrevealed character behind the flat choreographed her actions perfectly to match the sound effects of the ball bouncing off the wall or going through the hoop with a clean ‘whoosh.’ This synchronization coupled with the mysterious aura of the woman is unforgettable imagery.
Manford sets out on a journey to ultimately find out what this woman left behind in China years ago. He demonstrates his big dreams, great skills and insatiable passion to Saul, who is coaching at the University of San Francisco. Manford asks Saul to take him as a player to China for a “friendly rematch” against Beijing University. Saul accepts, despite being warned by Manford’s cousin Connie (Ruibo Qian) that following his mother’s recent death, Manford may not be emotionally ready to go. The play not only studies differing cultures but also highlights the identity confusion of many first-generation immigrants in America.
“The Great Leap” ends with an emotional monologue from Wen Chang, who reads a letter addressed to Manford in his office before descending to Tiananmen Square in the midst of student protests. This closing statement emphasizes the importance of family and the play engraves the message deep into the audience’s conscience by shutting off the lights on an extremely well-known and impactful image. Wen Chang holds a plastic bag in each hand and stands confidently in front of a line of tanks with his back to the audience.
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