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From the Bay Area playwright of Cambodian Rock Band!

Review By Vince Mediaa

The basketball court is now open at the CenterREP in Walnut Creek with an accomplished production of Lauren Yee’s THE GREAT LEAP through April 7th. Directed by Nicholas C. Avila and featuring a polished cast of local favorites. Yee says the 17 year old Manford Lum is based on her father “he played street basketball daily before he married my mother, so for me this sport is distinctly Asian American, my dad went to play a friendship game in china with the University team.”

Set between Beijing and San Francisco, THE GREAT LEAP is a tale of two countries into one, while overlapping in basketball, family, and politics. In a basketball battle, “it is always your turn”. says Coach Saul, played by the skilled Cassidy Brown. The USF Coach is a little reluctant to take on 17 year old Manford Lum played by the flawless James Aaron Oh, who reprises this role from his performance at the San Jose Stage. Manford, a high school senior, wants to be on the basketball team that Saul is taking to China for a friendship game. Manford is talented, driven, aggressive, and has his own reasons for his desperate drive to reach China. He’s only 5’7″ which Saul points out several times as he bullies the teen to discourage his dreams. Manford responds by giving him a rundown of every flaw in his team and Saul. For this teen he is already playing the game with his new coach.

Manford Lum is a clever player from the street courts of Chinatown. After just losing his mother he still shoots a hundred free throws a night before going to bed. Aaron Oh steals the court in this two act play. He is non stop compelling whenever he is on stage. He fast talks his way onto the USF team traveling to Beijing for the big game; challenging history that is personal and political. This story also pits the USF coach against his Chinese coach while protests and cultural revolution take their personal toll against the American Dream.  

Playwright Yee’s timeline is based near ‘Tiananmen Square’ with a chilling reminder of China in 1989. Eventually it creeps into the legendary game that Coach Saul and the entire Chinese Communist Party have waited 18 years for this rematch. 

The Chinese Coach Wen Chang, is played by the superb Edward Chen who hides his own secrets about Manford. Chang says that the Tiananmen Square protesters do not care if they die as long as their deaths are understood. Chen's rich authentic performance is a highlight of this play. Similarly, Manford has spent his entire life trying to be seen and understood. Back in San Francisco his cousin Connie played by the terrific Nicole Tung encourages Manford to follow his dead mother’s wishes and take the ”outside”. Manford finally realizes his mom was his number one fan and knew more about the court than he realized.

Yi-Chien Lee’s set is a sprawling gym with hardwood floors with three hoops and moving walls that provide space for other settings.  Spenser Matubang’s lighting design provides pools of lights for the game and Lee’s rich projections of historic photographs. Sound designer the clever Lyle Barrere fills the room with reverbing sounds of bouncing balls and nets, creating convincing versions of San Francisco, Beijing, and the final game. The green and gold are reflected in Maggie Whitaker’ costumes and Manford’s USA theme in the second act. Props master Alyssa Tryon surprisingly didn’t need to provide that many basketballs, most were not visual, but the gym bags and newspaper clips worked well. To age both Saul and Chang for their flashback scenes - wig designer Keke Vasquez Tamali’i easily set both men in their 30’s with her clever craft. Stage manager Kathleen J Parsons moves the four actors on and off the court like a tied basketball game. 

Yee’s electric writing has a rhythm, even as the story keeps guessing any outcome. Yee without leaning on stereotypes turns between language and and the clashes between Saul’s American way, rude boorish, impatient profanity versus Chang’s Chinese way classic polite, traditional, and gracious. Laurn Yee says “This is a play about basketball, but it is also a basketball play. The game is reflected not just in the subject matter but the structure and language, and the way characters move through space. We also should have a sense that someone is always watching. We may or may not see any actual basketballs on stage”.

Director Aliva stages THE GREAT LEAP  at a furiously paced, yet funny, and at times very emotional. It’s very similar to watching any great basketball game. Aaron Oh brings the energy from the start, playing the explosive underdog ready to fight his way from poverty to a professional court. But coach Chang’s bullying to keep the boy out of the Beijing game begins to feel personal as more facets of Chang’s past start to show. Chen plays Chang with great strength and passion; he is alone on stage in his final, powerful scene. The play is sharp with energy to the final game buzzer. Take a break from March Madness this play is a “Must See” and bring your own ball. 



By Lauren Yee

Directed by Nicholas C. Avila

Must close April 7, 2024

Lesher Center for the Arts,

1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek

Featuring; James Aaron Oh as “Manford,” Nicole Tung* as “Connie,”  Edward Chen* as “Wen Chang,” and Cassidy Brown as “Saul.” 


RUNNING TIME: Two hours one intermission 

Photos by Dave Lepori

LAUREN LEE Talks about her Fathers inspiration


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