A SHOWDOWN BETWEEN TWO WORLD POWER GIANTS, THIS BASKETBALL GAME IS PERFECT RIGHT UP THE ENDING BUZZER.
The sounds of the shoes and a ball bouncing center court on ACT’s Geary stage become a hip hop beat that opens Lauren Yee’s brillant new work THE GREAT LEAP. Lee has scored well this winter in the Bay Area staging two of her best works including THE KING OF YEES at the SFPH. In both plays Yee brings her family and San Francisco history to the page. Her Father is the inspiration and his Chinatown stories are infectious. A tribute to a street player who is a legend in Chinatown, her dad, Larry Yee. Mr Yee was the star player in her recent production of THE KING OF YEES. Yee says “I think there’s obviously something very vulnerable about seeing aspects of your life represented on stage, not controlled by you.” Yee says about her dad “he’s taken it very well. I think he views himself as kind of an ambassador for these shows and these stories.” San Francisco and where the jumping-off point is my father,” Yee says. “My father was born and raised in San Francisco, and basically the only thing he did before having kids was basketball. Growing up, I always remember hearing about the time he played basketball in China, and I never really asked beyond that. It was just something in the family lore.”
THE GREAT LEAP is now on the Geary Stage through March 31 and features a solid cast including BD Wong, Tim Liu, Arye Gross and Ruibo Qian. The year is 1989 on the campus of the University of San Francisco; coach Saul Slezac, played by the terrific Arye Gross is a F bomb master “I brought basketball to China,” he boasts. Lauren Yee’s script bounces between 1971 and 1989. In the ’70s, the brash coach visited Beijing on a cultural exchange to teach the Chinese about American basketball. With the help of mild-mannered translator, Wen Chang, played by the accomplished ACT favorite BD Wong, he helps form a team, and when Slezak heads back to the States, Wen becomes the coach. Chang says, basketball teaches teamwork, part of the Communist Party’s values. And Mao Zedong likes it. BD Wong brings a passion to every one of his lines “the American players only run fast because they think they are being chased.”
Flash forward 18 years and Saul’s college coaching career is near its end. A plan is hatched to play a “friendship game” with the Chinese team. Since the 70’s Wen has developed a powerhouse University of Beijing team. Preparing for the contest, Saul is badgered by a cocky, Chinese-American, Lowell high school kid named Manford Lum, played by the stellar Tim Lui, who demands to go to China with the team. We end up rooting for him. Perhaps it’s because he’s a 17-year-old guy from Chinatown trying to follow his dream to play basketball. Lui projects both the little brother who doesn’t know when to quit and the underdog you hope will never quit. Liu is polished in the role of Manford. The energy he brings to his every moment on stage energizes all of Union Square. His moves are a young boy playing an anxious game in the Chinatown alleys. His FOB mother has just died so his passion about her mystery and his Basketball skills is intense. The USF coach seeing his hustle, his deep knowledge of the game and his skills, Saul reluctantly bashes the boy then signs him.
Behind young Manford’s will to score in Beijing, he has read an obit in the San Francisco Chronicle next to the feature about the upcoming friendship game. Liu brings a confidence to compensate for the fact he’s just on the edge of just being 17. Manford, a Chinatown hoop king, races through the cheat sheet in his hand like a star salesman on commission. “I am quick, I am relentless. I am the most relentless person you have ever met and if you have met someone more relentless than me, tell me, tell me and I will meet them and I will find a way to become even more relentless than them!” His cousin Connie,played by the impressive Ruibo Qian, recognizes how restless the boy is becoming. She is his guardian and concerned he has stop attending his classes at Lowell High. He has shrugged off his Mother's death but the departed is a central figure.
Yee took inspiration from her father’s tales of playing basketball in San Francisco and being part of a “friendship” game to China. Yee captures a young man’s enthusiasm for the game. Director Lisa Peterson brings some spell binding movement for Liu’s graceful basketball ballet and leaps on stage. This doesn’t mean we get to see him nailing 99 free throws in a row, but projection expert Hana Sooyeon Kim’s keen video design is impeccable. As the story moves to Tieman Square, the projections are powerful bringing back memories from those 1989 student riots.
Arye Gross in the role of Saul bounces out obscenities like an x rated Scrooge. There’s little in his back story that says “former athlete.” In china Wen is his opposite,he is polite, modest and a true Mao defender. Wearing a blue Mao suit, period costumes by Meg Neville, government-issue glasses and simple haircut. BD brings this conservative hero a compelling tentativeness and his knowledge of the game an anxious goal. “Growing up, you did not want to be ‘someone,’ ” says Wen holding himself as if he’s trying to be invisible. “You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Because being someone could get you killed.”
Yee developed this work at A.C.T.’s New Strands Festival in 2017 and was selected for the Denver Center’s Colorado New Play Summit for a world premiere. One of the considerations was “How would the production take on the USF basketball court and also travel to China?” Scenic designer Robert Brill has resolved that with a set that re-creates a high-ceilinged gymnasium and relies on an elevated room where Wen Chang has a view of the vast, Tiananmen Square. Kim’s bold projections of image and words and sound design by Jake Rodriguez evoke Beijing at a time when the student demonstrators march toward the government’s violent pro democracy crackdown.
Manford plays point guard, the player who surveys the court, driving to the ball and seeing a great scoring opportunity for a teammate. Yee has said she wanted to write a script that moved like a basketball game. The great game is performed in shadows and pools of light provided by Yi Zhao’s light design that becomes the highlight of the second act. Liu is brilliant on stage, moving the ball and bringing the drama of that international game to the Geary stage.
The two act play moves fast with just four actors that brings BD’s performance center stage. BD Wong first did the play in NY and is pleased to be back in his hometown, San Francisco. He told the San Jose Merc “It’s going to resonate very differently than it did in New York, simply by the fact that the play takes place in San Francisco and San Franciscans will be coming to see it.” “There’s something special about that. We’ve taken field trips to watch a Chinatown basketball team, we’ve gone to USF and been coached by the USF basketball coach. And USF is the basketball team that’s in the play.” BD admires the subtext of Yee’s play “Using basketball as a metaphor, one of the themes of the play is whether you run or stand still."
Director Peterson finds the community in the script and brings a subtle East-meets-West pairing--Wongs phlegmatic Wen with Gross’ in-your-face Saul. She also brings out a brilliant performance from Tim Lui, whose intense effervescence is fueled by regret and a search for his own identity. Peterson does a keen job giving us a hint of the hero who who succeeds in the company of giants and the Tanks. It is subtle and apt in having her lead pass the greatest moment of “The Great Leap” to another on June 4, 1989, as the world watches as tanks roll across Tiananmen Square. Next up at ACT is VANITY FAIR opens April 17th. HER PORTMANTEAU is currently on stage at the Strand Theatre through March 31. Later this spring The Kilbanes restage their hit Rock Opera WEIGHTLESS that opens April 30th. But in the meantime this full court power of THE GREAT LEAP continues to confirm that Lauren Yee is one of our best American Playwrights - This is a MUST SEE. (I am trying to avoid Slam Dunk)
American Conservatory Theater Presents
‘THE GREAT LEAP’
By Lauren Yee,
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Must Close March 31
ACT’s Geary Theater
415 Geary St., San Francisco
Two acts - One Hour 45 min.
Tickets: 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org
Photos by Kevin Berne
*Interviews with Lauren Yee and BD Wong - courtesy of The BAR and San Jose Mercury News
ACT Artistic Director Pam Mackinnon comments on the play:
Tiananmen Square 1989