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Theater Review: “The Great Leap”

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
Photo credit:
Karli Cadel Photography

The U.S. has a history of promoting western sports to the inscrutable East. Back in the 1930s, Lefty O’Doul, Moe Berg and Ted Lyons went to Japan to teach baseball seminars at Japanese universities.

Playwright Lauren Yee (of “Cambodian Rock Band” fame) tells a surprising fictional story about an American college basketball coach who takes his team to Beijing to play the local university team.

Inspired by her father’s story about his college team doing just that in the early 1980s. The play moves the time up to 1989, just before the Tiananmen Square riots.

Rob Lutfy directs “The Great Leap,” playing through Feb. 16 at Cygnet Theatre.

The story is about the determination of one Chinese American player named Manford (Scott Keiji Takeda) to go with the team despite the misgivings of coach Saul (Manny Fernandes), who insists the roster is full. But Manford makes the team by throwing 99 baskets in a row.

When they arrive in Beijing, Saul meets an old friend – Chinese coach Wen Chang (Edward Chen), whom Saul had met in a previous 1971 game and spotted as a good coaching prospect. Saul gave him some pointers at the time.

now they meet as opposing coaches. Wen Chang’s philosophy was to tell players to wait their turn at the ball. Saul urges action: “It’s always your turn.”

Is Saul’s previous claim that “no Chinese team will ever beat an American team” now at risk?

The play has only one other character: a tall basketball-loving girl named Connie (played by Keiko Green), who has been to China and has advice for the young Manford: to register with the embassy on arrival.

Fernandes’ Saul, a brash, foul-mouthed, say-whatever-comes-to-mind type offers a stark contrast with Chen’s cautious, moderated style – a man who “could not change jobs, move cities, breathe air without express permission from the Party.”

The stage has a hardwood floor, like a basketball court, and Yi-Chien Lee’s set design even features a hoop over the audience’s head. The script is structured like a basketball game, with characters lobbing comments at each other.

The play’s title ties in with China’s “great leap forward” in the late 1950s, in which Mao Zedong attempted to modernize China’s agrarian economy into a communist society.

Rob Lutfy keeps this difficult game – and the play – moving and grooving.

Fernandes has the most fun job, and he makes the most of it.

Edward Chen is excellent as Wen Chang, the man in the middle – between social structures and political systems – who must decide to try to juggle both or choose one.

Takeda’s Manford plays the ambitious basketball freak with the tenacity – and charm – of a kid who won’t take no for an answer.

Green (who originated the role of Connie in the world premiere), plays the slightly mysterious Connie with great aplomb._

Yee has a great facility for creating engaging characters, and a good feel for social issues like family, ambition, the American “it’s always your turn” mentality vs. China’s “group play” and yes, politics, and her last scene packs quite an emotional punch.

I can’t wait for her next play. But meanwhile, go see this one.

The details

“The Great Leap” plays through February 16, 2020, at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town,

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.