Rob Lufty’s “From the Director” letter in the program for Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap notes that “Lauren often talks about how every playwright has one basic story that they are trying to perfect with every play they write.” Having seen Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band and now this, I think I see what she means.
Both involve a gulf between an Asian-American and an immigrant parent; both dig into the obscured and violent past for clues about the gulf’s origins; both use major political events to both add drama and help explain the current predicament. And in the “trying to perfect” department, both count on the audience to accept certain oddities in the action for the sake of making the story work. In Rock Band, a daughter mysteriously goes incommunicado, even though she knows her father is worried sick about her, prompting the old man to leave her a voice mail illuminating his dark secrets in the hopes it will get her to call back. Leap is rather more imperfect in this regard: an anti-government Chinese activist somehow slips out of the country even as the communists close in, and an American basketball player somehow slips off the team bus and into Tiananmen Square even as his coach warns against it. Once there, he gets the students gathered to protest against the government to point out the precise apartment of the one man he is looking for, even though he doesn’t speak Chinese. And that’s just the stuff we hear about. The oddity we actually see is enough to yank the audience out of the drama.
There’s an awful lot going on in The Great Leap. Manford is a young basketball player, seeking to slip out from under the weight of his heritage. He wants to be “not just good for a Chinese player,” but good, period. It’s why he always walks home from school outside Chinatown, even though he knows he’ll get jumped. Saul is a coach at the University of San Francisco who has made his team his family now that his actual family has fallen apart, and if he doesn’t turn his program around, he stands to lose that one, too. And Wen is trying to build a life (and stay alive) in the aftermath of the titular Great Leap Forward. Though he’d rather just avoid being noticed by the Party, he winds up making the most of his time spent working with Saul to teach basketball — a sport that supposedly meshes well with communist ideals — to Chinese athletes. Everybody gets their turn in the spotlight, but it’s Wen’s story, which is what makes the following oddity so distracting.
The play’s present day is 1989; its obscured past is 18 years earlier. Saul’s a foul-mouthed blowhard, but he takes a liking to Wen, and when he notices Wen noticing a tall girl in the stands, he asks about her. “She is the most magnificent player I have seen touch the balls,” marvels Wen. It should be “ball,” of course, but how else are we going to get Saul to grin and reply “I bet” before asking if Wen has ever, well, balled her? Never mind that his English is otherwise perfect, his character needs to slip up here so that Saul can press for details about the copulation — details Wen not only relates, but relates in breathless basketball analogies — “Split the post, down the lane!” — as if he’s announcing the event for television. On and on he goes, banging away at the imagery like…never mind. Why on earth is this otherwise reserved and good son of the Party describing a sexual encounter with the woman he loves to a crude foreigner and relative stranger, all within sight of the woman in question? Why indeed. At intermission, a woman near me said to her companion, “I don’t usually try to figure things out and try to guess what’s going to happen when I see plays, but I think I know why that scene was there.”
That’s a lot of time spent on one particular moment in the show, but it’s representative. The play has a place it wants to get to, and it does what it has to in order to get there, however inelegantly, often relying on Saul’s American vulgarity for easy laughs to juice the narrative.
Sometimes, this works, thanks to Manny Fernandes’ ability to make Saul a good-hearted guy under all the gruff proclamations and silly swears. Besides the glaring exception noted above, his interactions with Edward Chen’s Wen ring true. But the most perfect part of this production isn’t on the stage, it’s behind it, on the electronic screens that serve as a backdrop in both the literal and figurative sense. The projected images mix Chinese propaganda, NBA highlights, newspaper headlines, television news clips, and even character footage to excellent effect.
- The Great Leap, by Lauren Yee
- Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
- Directed by Rob Lufty, cast: Edward Chen, Manny Fernandes, Keiko Green, Scott Keiji Takeda; scenic design, Yi-Chen Lee; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Minjoo Kim; sound, Melanie Chen Cole; projections, Blake McCarty
- Playing through February 16, ; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm