Steppenwolf Theatre Company has opened its 2019/20 season with the Chicago premiere of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap directed by Jesca Prudencio; it runs through October 20, 2019 in the Upstairs Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
It’s a play about dichotomies, snapshotting and interweaving two basketball teams, two coaches, two sets of cultural norms. Two Asian women- one never seen- comprise the support system for a young basketball hopeful, Asian-American Manford, who ends up making the team despite his “short” stature. Ultimately, he travels with the University of San Francisco’s team to China for an exhibition match or “goodwill game” and confronts his heritage, in a double coming together of genetics and politics. The action takes place in two timeframes- 1971 and 1989- and in two venues- San Francisco and Beijing.
The play is as fresh and fast as the action on a superstar infused basketball court. Both the physical behavior and the repartee, tautly directed by Prudencio, deliver up a double serving of laugh-out-loud comedy and dramatic tension. More than that, it’s a family saga, a political/racial commentary, and a philosophical polemic on the nature of personal identity.
In the play’s dual time settings of 1971 and 1989, Saul, the American coach, projecting bravado, machismo and haranguing his players with a toilet mouth stream of invective cum encouragement, is figuratively front and center. His opponent Wen Chang is a stiff, correct, steely Communist party man. They first meet when Saul, as en envoy to China in 1971, advises Wong on how to put together a winning team. In what turns out to be a strange confluence of fate, Saul also taunts him about his sexless state. Wen Chang responds by revealing his liaison with a woman; in 1989 Manford discovers she is his mother, who later immigrated to America.
With a background of shifting projections of Tiananmen square, to very real shouts of encouragement, the two coaches in 1989’s tournament “stalk the game”, as the audience is treated to a balletic exhibition of pirouettes and throws. Amid spectacularly subtle lighting, baskets are sunk by the hundred as Manford comes to represent the hopes of an entire generation.
Interspersed with scenes of frustrated determination, confrontational challenges and the revelations of family secrets are woven in a montage of scenes. The whole is so sensitively done, so realistic in feel; we never see the end coming, despite the grainy, horrific protest image and increasingly desperate rhetoric of Wen Chang.
In 1958, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong implemented a plan to convert the country’s agrarian economy into farm collectives run by the government; called “Great Leap Forward”, it was a disaster. The play, cleverly set in authentically loose and slangy English and contrastingly stilted Chinese interpreted “American-eze” emphasizes the differences between democracy and Communism.
The Great Leap contains simultaneous nuanced stories: Manford leaps through the air to sink the balls. Saul leaps across continents to promote a sport loved by both China and the U.S., and fathers a team of young men who are not his sons. Wen Chang takes a leap of faith toward his real son. All the characters ultimately transcend boundaries, forge alliances and strive to break the bonds that shackle us all, and they do so uttering great lines:
“Every game is a second chance to live your life all over again”.
“Never wait for someone to give you back what should be yours”.
“It is always your turn”.
Featuring Keith Kupferer as Saul, the coach with the heart of a lion; Deanna Myers as cousin Connie, the ultimate strong sister; Glenn Obrero as Manford, determined to conquer, even when filled with despair; and James Seol as Wen Chang, who allows his heart to open.
Thanks to Justin Humphres, scenic designer, who created spaces with just a hint of scenery; Jenny Mannis, costume designer, for understated yet perfect garb; Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, sound designer, for great noise and rockin’ music; and the rest of the artistic/production crew.
All photos by Michael Brosilow