Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Center Repertory Company

Now through April 7th, 2024.

By: Mar. 21, 2024
Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Center Repertory Company
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Center Rep tackles Playwright Lauren Yee’s basketball/cultural drama and with a 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 in this often humorous, yet emotionally stirring piece of theatre.

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.

Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Center Repertory Company
Old friends Saul (Cassidy Brown) and Wen (Edward Chen) catch up in Center Repertory Company's "The Great Leap," presented March 16 - April 7 at Lesher Center for the Arts.

Crass, foul-mouthed USF coach Saul, played with gusto by Cassidy Brown, arrives in 1971 Beijing for an exhibition game and meets his translator Wen Chang (Edward Chen). 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 this as a slight that sets in motion the dramatic rematch that is the dramatic focus of the second act.

Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Center Repertory Company
Connie (Nicole Tung) gives her cousin Manford (James Aaron Oh) advice in Center Repertory Company's "The Great Leap," presented March 16 - April 7 at Lesher Center for the Arts.

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 James Aaron Oh, is just as desperate to make the exhibition team as is Saul and Wen on winning the rematch. Manford’s 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 (Nicole Tang) 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. 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. Chang’s transformation from silent bystander to a man of action is both stirring and poignant.

Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Center Repertory Company
Manford (center -James Aaron Oh) makes a shot as Saul (left - Cassidy Brown) and Wen (right - Edward Chen) watch in Center Repertory Company's "The Great Leap," presented March 16 - April 7 at Lesher Center for the Arts.

Director Nicholas C. Avila is blessed with a talented cast and moves the action and builds tension wonderfully. 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 Lighting Designer Spenser Matubang.

The Great Leap (a reference to Mao’s economic and social campaign 1958 to 1962) 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 Center Rep does her work great justice.

 The Great Leap continues through April 7th at Center Repertory Company. For information, contact LesherArtsCenter.org  or call 925-943-7469.

Photos by Alessandra Mello.




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