If only basketball really could move the needle toward positive trade relations with the Chinese. But this play looks back in history to the 70s and 80s when China was emerging from the Mao re-education programs, through Tiananmen Square in 1989. Multi award-winning Playwriter Lauren Yee bases the story on her father’s return to China to play exhibition games in the 80s. He was a San Francisco Chinatown street player good enough to make the U.S. exhibition team, which was sounded defeated by the “tall tree” Chinese teams.
The story features the street ball player, Manford (Glenn Obrero), a legend at 17. But the protagonists are the coaches, Saul (Keith Kupferer) for the U.S. and Wen Chang (James Seol) for the Chinese. When they meet for the big exhibition game in 1989, they reflect on their original meeting in the 70s when Saul visited China to teach U.S. techniques to Chinese coaches. Since this meeting, Saul’s career and his life have peaked; he is on the downside. Wen Chang has reached the top of his career, sacrificing family and personal life for the team and his Communist ideals. Saul is earthy, gruf, an East Coast Jew in a sweat suit. Wen Chang is controlled, almost humorless, a straight-laced Chinese in a black business suit.
In a stretch of the imagination, we learn the back story of Manford and Coach Wen Chang. Telling more would be a plot spoiler, but the pieces fit, if a bit forced. Bringing together Manford’s story is Connie (Deanna Myers) his “cousin” from the U.S. who helps temper his emotional outbursts.
The Great Leap is staged in the Steppenwolf Upstairs space, set in the profile style, which most closely resembles a basketball court—baskets at both ends, risers along the sides. A compressed court is drawn on the stage. Combined with pinpoint lights and Obrero’s athleticism, Manford easily demonstrates his skill with the ball. Shots are completed with a resounding “swish” for scores or a metallic “clank” for misses. Set pieces are few—folding chairs, basketball rack, small tables, smoothly brought on and off the stage by the actors. Video boards sit at the top of each bank of seats, projecting scores, expanding the sets, and illustrating history with news flashes. All together they produced maximum effect in a small theater.
The actors were uniformly excellent. Glenn Obrero plays the manic Manford to the edge of belief with athleticism that makes his story real. The coaches, Keith Kupferer and James Seol play off each other like a Federer/Nadal match. Deanna Myers is the voice of reason in an otherwise edgy script. If only the actors would remember that a profile set means you play in “profile”, because when you face one way or the other, your voice does not carry.
Recommended for an enjoyable evening of interesting theater.