Stages

Review: In The Great Leap at Steppenwolf, Basketball and Chinese Politics Mix It Up

The Great Leap is an homage to basketball and to playwright Lauren Yee’s father—and also connects to Chinese history and politics and the country’s competitiveness with the West. Yee’s latest play is now being staged by Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by Jesca Prudencio; it features a cast of four superb actors.

Yee’s father, she says, “played basketball. every day, all night, on the asphalt courts and rec center floors of San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was the only thing he was good at. He was never good enough that he was going to play for the NBA or even at the college level, but for a 6’1″ Chinatown kid from the projects, he was good. Really good.”

Seol and Kupferer as Wen Chang and Saul, June 1989. Photo BY Michael Brosilow.

The setting moves back and forth from San Francisco in May 1989 to Beijing in summer 1971 and June 1989. Saul (Keith Kupferer) coaches the USF basketball team; he’s an aggressive coach, former mediocre player and accomplished shit-talker. In May 1989, he’s getting his team ready to play Beijing University—18 years after the first matchup between these two teams. Manford (Glenn Obrero), a short but scrappy high school player of Chinese descent, confronts Saul and demands the chance to try out for the team and the Beijing trip. Saul resists but finally lets him demonstrate his free-throw ability—99 shots in a row.

In 1971, Saul is in Beijing, meeting his Chinese translator/minder Wen Chang (James Seol), who speaks formal English (he has problems translating Saul’s profanity and slang) and admires cautious basketball. Lots of three-point shots, few inside shots and very little player contact. And short players. Saul and Wen Chang discuss basketball (“Speed, accuracy and HEIGHT. That’s what you need,” Saul tells him) and the friendship between the two men begins. The USF team wins that game.

In Wen Chang’s basketball, players wait their turn to get the ball; that’s how you respect the game. Saul says, “you respect the game by playing as hard as you can. they shove, you shove right back, you cocksucking chink-eyed commie red motherfucker.”

As Saul tries to teach Wen Chang a new way to play and coach, don’t miss the inside-basketball joke about the play now known as the pick and roll.

In 1989, Manford talks with his cousin Connie (Deanna Myers) about family (his mother who recently died was 6’2” and a basketball player) and his desire to make the Beijing trip. Connie helps him make arrangements and convinces Saul that it will work.

In Beijing, Saul’s brilliantly played monologue to the players on the bus is a highlight of act two.  They’ve just arrived in China; police, soldiers and international news media are everywhere because Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev has made a state visit. Protestors are in Tiananmen Square as they are in Hong Kong today. Saul harangues his players on how to stay out of trouble—and out of the media spotlight. Most of them do.

Obrero as Manford. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Obrero is magic to watch. His physical presence is full of lightning; he moves like a dancer on the court or off. Kupferer is one of Chicago’s solid actors and his performance here is the perfect counterpoint to Seol’s quiet dignity as Wen Chang, who grows from the Communist Party functionary in 1971 to a confident, well-dressed coach in 1989. Watching Seol‘s character develop over the two acts adds immensely to this experience.

The Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf is fitted out like a mini basketball court (scenic design by Justin Humphres), with seating and electronic scoreboards on both sides. The only things missing are the basketball goals at each end of the court and that means that Manford’s attempts at goals or free throws are just popups into someone’s hands. I know, I know, they couldn’t have a goal because…what if he misses? But this is a basketball story and Steppenwolf’s creative team has chosen a lame solution to the problem. Yee’s script says there may or may not be any basketballs on stage, but if you’re going to have them, then shoot them.

In the game portion near the end of act two, excitement is created by the projections of Rosean Davonte Johnson, the sound design and original music by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca and lighting by Keith Parham.  But if you’re a basketball fan, that doesn’t quite make up for the excitement of players running back and forth between goals passing, dribbling, shooting and elbowing. This is basketball for theater fans, not real basketball. The Great Leap is a solid, poignant story, smoothly directed and well performed. I’ll get my basketball when the NBA season starts.

Lauren Yee is a highly regarded playwright. Her play, Cambodian Rock Band, was awarded the Steinberg Award for best new play this year by the American Theatre Critics Association. Her other plays include King of the Yees, Hookman and Samsara.

You can see The Great Leap through October 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $20-$89 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is two hours with one intermission.

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