THE BALL IS IN LAUREN YEE’S COURT AT THE STEPPENWOLF UPSTAIRS THEATRE WITH
THE GREAT LEAP
There are moments in our lives where we are part of something great. We do not sacrifice our individuality or submit to any alien philosophy, but we are simply part of the human race and nothing else matters. It happens listening to Beethoven or watching a really good play or playing sports or just rooting for team and spilling our beer all over in the process, it’s a time where we are no longer part of a religious denomination, our race and gender are irrelevant, and our enthusiasm is all that counts. Steppenwolf Theatre opens its 2019/20 season with Lauren Yee’s Chicago premiere of The Great Leap where the mysterious and obedient East meets the irreverent and driven West on a basketball court and audiences are cheering. The Great Leap, directed by Jesca Prudencio is a high-energy, action-packed American story that goes overseas to contrast U.S. values and work ethic with that of the Chinese communist party. It’s the individual vs. the follower with a bridge of a story about a young Chinese-American man who has made a name for himself as a street basketball player in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He’s honed his craft and feels almost rabidly-confident that he is good enough to make the team at the University of San Francisco.
The time is 1989. Glenn Obrero is Manford Lum, is almost dangerous as the high school basketball star and determined to go to great lengths. He barges onto the court of the University of San Francisco’s coach Saul (Keith Kupferer) and demands that he become part of the team that is going to China. Saul laughs at his lack of height alone, but what Manford lacks in stature he far surpasses in chutzpah. He bets him that he can make 100 free throws and Saul starts to take notice. When he learns that Manford is only a high school kid he’s ready to put him out, but Manford is so persistent he breaks down and tries to give him a chance. Manford gets on the tour, suits up, but will probably not be able to play. The team is cautioned that China is in a state of unrest but nothing should deter from the game. This is an important game.
In Beijing Saul reunites with Wen Chang (James Seol) the Chinese coach. They had met once before in 1971, when Saul was asked to coach the Chinese. He remembered that they would never take shot, they would always wait their turn. Saul, at the top of his lungs tells them “When you’re on the court it’s always your turn! Take your shot!” Saul has a loud, foul mouth. While Wen Chang is calm, reserved, even restrained. Almost afraid that a show of personality will anger the party. Saul goes over to China believing once again that no Chinese team will ever beat an American team.
Manford tells his cousin Connie (Deanna Myers) that he is driven by basketball, but has little other hope for a future. He was raised by his deceased mother and never knew his father. He wants to go to China not only to play basketball, but find out more about who he is. This is a very personal story for playwright Yee. Her father was a Chinatown basketball hero and was often recognized and lauded on the street. At times the depth of the story seems cinematic and alienating. It feels like a subtle patois is being spoken that is not audible to every audience member. Yet the bridge between the two cultures through the character of Manford is a great balance between the extreme of Communist education and the let it all hang out individualist American way.
James Seol as the model Chinese citizen, cautious of every word that comes out of his mouth trying to understand the appalling language, insults and distractions spewing from Keith Kupferer as the irreverent and hard-driving American coach is as thrilling as watching Michael Jordan walk on air to sink a basket. The Great Leap is fast-paced and exciting and enlightening. It’s a lesson in history, culture and how ambition is defined within the confines of political structure. Yes it’s pretty meaty!
The Great Leap is a good play for audiences of all ages and runs through October 20 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets are available through Audience Services, phone 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org.
Review by Ruth Smerling