BWW Review: THE GREAT LEAP at A.C.T. Starring B.D. Wong
An exploration of cultural identity, global politics and the collision of cultures and generations...
Playwright Lauren Yee is on a San Francisco roll with a recently closed SF Playhouse production of King of the Yees and now this stunning, well crafted staging of her 2017 powerhouse The Great Leap. Renowned for deftly combining her San Francisco roots, Chinese culture and global politics, Yee puts it all together is this often humorous, yet emotionally stirring piece of theatre. A.C.T. has given Yee's script a deserving quality treatment with a sterling cast that includes Tony winner B.D. Wong, and a smart, meticulous scenic design that is a wonder to behold.
Yee's love of basketball provides the overarching backdrop for this story of an exhibition game between the University of San Francisco's team and one from Beijing. In true Yee style, there are many dramatic arcs that veer off from the simple exchange of culture provided by the opening of China to the West in 1971.
Brash, foul-mouthed USF coach Saul, played with gusto by Arye Gross, arrives in 1971 Beijing for an exhibition game and meets his translator Wen Chang (B. D. Wong). In teaching Wen the vagaries of American b-ball (screens, the pick and roll), Chang is offered the opportunity to coach the Chinese team, a huge step up for a man whose lived his whole life in the shadows of Communist anonymity. When the US coach proclaims that a Chinese team will never beat the US, the Chinese take his as a slight that sets in motion the dramatic rematch that is the dramatic focus of the second act.
Fast forward to 1989 where Saul's coaching tenure is in jeopardy and there's word the Chinese may have a superior team. A brash High school senior crashes the USF practice and offers his services to the desperate Saul. Manford, played with youthful exuberance and high testosterone swagger by Tim Liu, is just as desperate to make the exhibition team as is Saul and Sen on winning the rematch. His ulterior motives provide the surprise twist and bittersweet emotional punch late in Act Two.
Manford of course makes the team with his impressive skills and wins the support of his non-biological cousin Connie (Ruibo Qian) for the trip. When Manford is photographed leading a USA! chant at the Tiananmen protests, Wen Chang will not allow him to play in the game. Its extremely important for China and Wen to win the game, Saul calls foul and allows Manford to enter the game late. The suspense of the basketball game, Wen Chang's difficult choice not to call the game off and please his Communist handlers will have catastrophic effects for all involved.
Two-time Obie award winning Director Lisa Peterson is blessed with a stellar cast, but it's how she moves the action and builds tension that elevates this production to must-see status. Utilizing a stage-wide panel of screens, images of basketball action, Communist imagery and the fateful student protest at Tiananmen Square are projected exquisitely by Projection Designer Hana S. Kim. Robert Brill provides sparse but effective scenic design that leaves the large stage bare, centering the attention on the four actors, brilliantly lit by Lighting Designer Yi Zhao. The sounds of bouncing balls, the crowded stadium and the protest are timed to perfection by Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez.
While the King of the Yees was personal and intimate, The Great Leap (a reference to Mao's economic and social campaign 1958 to 1962) is broader and incorporates significant historical events into the emotional arcs of her main characters. Yee is one of the best of the current crop of young playwrights, and A.C.T does her work great justice.
The Great Leap continues through March 31st at A.C.T., 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For information, contact www.act-sf.org or call (415)749-2228.
Photos by Kevin Berne.