With the controversial Beijing Olympics wrapping up soon, you can’t argue with the timing of Asolo Rep’s production of playwright Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, set in a world where sports, politics and personal stories intersect onstage as they do now in the real one.
In Yee’s play, the action flips back and forth between 1971 and 1989, and between Beijing and San Francisco, and it hangs on the game of basketball. There are only four characters to drive the tale: motormouth Chinatown teen Manford Lum (Glenn Obrero); University of San Francisco coach Saul Slezac (Gregg Weiner), vulgar and out of bounds in a casual and sometimes funny way; his Chinese counterpart and translator Wen Chang (Greg Watanabe), for whom Saul is an unlikely mentor of sorts; and Connie (Helen Joo Lee), a relative/friend of Manford’s who’s wise to the ways of the world but has trouble keeping the kid in check.
Their interactions, as Manford works hard to persuade Saul to let him join the American team for a “friendship” game in China in 1989, take place on a set resembling a basketball court’s geometry. (The scenic design, by Arnel Sancianco, is complemented by Keith Parham’s lighting and Paul Deziel’s projection design.) As played by Obrero, Manford is pretty much an irresistible force, one who won’t let anything get in his way to play the game in China, despite his lack of height and his youth. He’s also a fountain of knowledge about basketball players and stats. But beyond the game itself, Manford has another reason for wanting to go to China that becomes apparent in Act II.
Meanwhile, Saul’s obsession with coaching has led to his family splitting up. And back in China, Wen Chang is paying the cost emotionally for his decision to follow the Communist Party line no matter what. It’s kept him safe, if alone, during turbulent times, through famine and the Cultural Revolution. But in 1989, as student protests erupt and the date of June 4 in Tiananmen Square looms over him and us, that decision may have dramatic and life-changing consequences.
Act I is frequently entertaining as it introduces us to these people and their motivations, with Yee writing some sharp comic dialogue (much of it colorful and crude, especially when issuing from Saul’s mouth, so parents, beware). But it’s in Act II that The Great Leap really hits hard, during the intense game itself, narrated by the actors play by play, and illuminated by a scoreboard that rapidly changes to keep us updated. Surprising emotional depths are reached; and while some in the audience may not fully believe the ending, it certainly has impact.
Directed by Vanessa Stalling with energy and a swift pace, The Great Leap is also well cast and performed with gusto and strength. While the production was originally intended to run two years ago (it was delayed because of Covid-19), it has a timeliness to it now that also works to its benefit.
The Great Leap continues in rotating rep through April 2. For tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.