Set between Beijing and San Francisco, InterAct’s The Great Leap threads a tale of two countries into one, while overlapping poignant hustles in basketball, family, and politics.
Taking his turn
On the basketball court, “it is always your turn,” repeats Coach Saul (Scott Greer). You don’t wait for permission. Even so, he’s a little reluctant to take on Manford Lum (Richard Chan), a caffeine pill of a boy who lacks the height Saul normally requires on his team. But with a long-awaited “rematch” in Beijing coming up, Manford eventually convinces the tough-love coach to make an exception.
Manford grew up in the 1980s in San Francisco’s Chinatown, speaking little Chinese and feeling distant from his own immigrant mother. But Manford doesn’t want to be good at basketball “for a Chinese boy.” He is relentless. He beats everyone at the game. He shoots a hundred free throws a night before going to bed. He gets in trouble for shouting at his own teammates.
Events of 1989
It’s 1989, and in the last three minutes of the Chicago Bulls playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, Michael Jordan would perform “the Shot,” a legendary last-minute play that brought the Bulls to victory. The same year, in China on June 4, the People’s Liberation Army fired at demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, many of them students calling for reforms like democracy and freedom of the press. Several hundred to several thousand were killed and many more wounded.
Playwright Lauren Yee’s timeline is devastatingly precise, but she does not concern herself too much with educating the audience on a country’s entire modern history. The name ‘Tiananmen Square’ is a chilling enough presage. In the play, the place is first a passing reference, but eventually it creeps into the legendary game that Coach Saul and the entire Chinese Communist Party have waited 18 years to see.
Coach Wen Chang (Justin Jain) remarks at one point that the Tiananmen Square protestors do not care if they die so long as their death is in the spotlight. Similarly, Manford has spent his entire life trying to be seen.
Filling the gym
Balancing this desire for visibility in a disregarding world, Mellie Katakalos’s set is a sprawling gym with hardwood floors that gleam forcefully under Peter Whinnery’s neatly partitioned lights. Most of the set is often in shadow. With a maximum of four actors ever onstage at once, the space often feels empty, the way gyms do without the bustle of sweating teams and squeaking sneakers. Sound designer Daniel Ison fills the room with reverbing sounds of bouncing balls and busy crowds, creating convincing shadow-versions of San Francisco, Beijing, and the court.
Nevertheless, it’s a daunting amount of space, which director Seth Rozin seems dedicated to filling. A few emotionally packed scenes are sequestered upstage, where the actors’ dynamism seems to be on hold as they zip through potent dialogue until the next sports-centered scene. The stage is only fully lit and used when it is a court. But for a play which encompasses so much more (and extricates the actors from ever having to actually shoot a free throw), it seems a waste to delimit off-court scenes in this way. On top of this, the background projections of Chairman Mao feel more pixelated than constantly watchful.
A twofold history
Yee’s electric writing sustains the play, even as the plot sheds some credibility during a few drastic turns. Without leaning on stereotype, Yee turns expertly between phrase and context, heightening the distance between Saul’s American way—crude, boorish, impatient—and Chang’s Chinese way—polite, collectivist, gracious.
InterAct promotes The Great Leap as “heart-pumping,” like watching any great sports game. Chan brings the energy from the start, playing an explosive high-school underdog ready to claw his way from food stamps to a professional court. But after some time, Chan’s verve begins to feel unmodulated, even as more tragic facets of his past start to show.
Jain’s restraint as Wen Chang, on the other hand, feels calculated: his accent is neatly clipped, his brow set in a light, consistent furrow. This moderation is colored at times by a storyteller’s impulse to show, not just tell. His stage presence wavers between tragic figure and tour guide, coming through in full force only when Jain is alone on stage, and most vigorously of all in his final, transfixing scene.
The Great Leap is ambitious, despite moments I wished to see more carefully plotted in space as in acting. The show pulses with energy and earnestness that span myriad divides in history, continents, and culture.
What, When, Where
The Great Leap. By Lauren Yee, directed by Seth Rozin. InterAct Theatre Company. Through June 23, 2019, at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.
The Drake Theatre complex is fully accessible. Wheelchair seating, companion seating, and mobility and audiovisual-accessible seating are available for all performances. Seating requests can be made prior to the performance by calling the box office or emailing [email protected]. The Drake has gender-neutral restrooms.