Review: 'The Great Leap' is a Brilliant Play Exploring History Through Sports

The conceit of Lauren Yee’s 2018 play The Great Leap, currently in production at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo, is brilliant. Part fiction, part global history, part autobiography, it speaks to uniquely immigrant experiences through four characters and an imagined set of circumstances amid a very real, vivid historic moment.

The moment is Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989. And the build up to that moment here is a basketball game between the University of San Francisco and Beijing University with Wen Chang, the Communist Party line-towing coach facing off with Saul, the gruff, filthy-mouthed USF coach. They had met in 1971 when Wen Chang was the young translator assigned to Saul, who was there to whip the Chinese team into shape.

The playwright’s father was a successful Chinatown “street” baller in 1980s San Francisco who played on an American team that went to China for a series of exhibition games, and the character Manford Lum emerged from his stories.

The play continues on the day of Lum’s mother’s funeral, when he makes a cocky pitch to Saul to make him the point guard on the team he’s taking to China, and from the moment he takes the stage, it’s clear he won’t take no for an answer. His graduate-student cousin Connie tries to dissuade him but ultimately gives him her blessing for reasons that become evident later in the play.

The leaps here are many. The reverberations from Chairman Mao’s The Great Leap Forward; the leap across continents for the game; the leap across continents for Connie and Manford’s parents so their children could experience life outside Communist rule; the literal and figurative leaps Manford, less than 6-feet tall, takes as a player; and the imaginative leaps the audience must make as astounding connections between characters and history are revealed. That last set of leaps are a bit too large to suspend disbelief, but it’s at that point the power of the performances take over.

Ming Wu is a dynamic Manford. Full of kinetic energy, he captures the push-pull of the character’s self assuredness and fear. Zhanna Albertini is a smart, sympathetic Connie, a wonderful presence on stage who represents the consciousness of her generation. Richard Manera is wonderful as Wen Chang: funny, wise, full of pathos, it’s his performance more than anything that allows us to make the biggest leaps.

Jason Grubbe is appropriately crass as Saul, affecting convincing mannerisms and vocal patterns from the Bronx, but he has a tendency to slow down scenes that are directed by Helen Young to move as if the actors are quickly dribbling a ball up and down the court of the stage.

George Eric Perry’s set turns the intimate thrust stage into a half court lit up in neon and David Clemens’ fine projections expand the locations far beyond the sports arena to interiors and exteriors near and far. Nicole Peckens’ costumes are wonderfully reminiscent of the 1980s as are Savannah Draper’s props as well as the the pop music interludes part of Tony Mitchell’s sound design.

It’s a somewhat unusual story, especially for West Michigan, a place where Asian-American, much less Chinese-American, tales are rarely found on stage; and it’s in good hands at Farmers Alley, a theatre that walks the talk of presenting the diversity of human experience, guiding its audience to take an all-important leap beyond the usual fare.

The Great Leap
Farmers Alley Theatre
Jan. 27-Feb. 12