In a reminder that U.S. friction with China has simmered far longer than recent headlines, The Great Leap at Round House Theatre presents a rapid-fire, funny, (very) profane, and often painful contemporary character tale reflected through two specific events in the lives of four characters in a deftly choreographed ensemble piece.
The format comparing two past events in a parallel track timeline feels quite compelling given that the play’s audience, too, is emerging from a two-year social slumber to a present-day that’s both familiar yet forever changed.
The Great Leap uses the classic underdog sports format to unspool its tale.
It’s 1989, and the University of San Francisco basketball team is headed to China for a “friendship” game with notes of a grudge match, recasting a similar 1970s game where the two coaches first met. In a series of events that require some suspension of disbelief (hey, it was the 80s, anything was possible), Chinese-American high school basketballer Manford—portrayed with a hot-headed, impulsive urgency by Randy Nguyen Ta—pesters aging foul-mouthed coach Saul (a forlorn and worn Eric Hissom) enough to talk his way onto the team. Landing in Beijing just before the Tiananmen Square uprising, Manford, Saul, and their Chinese team’s coach Wen Chang are forced to explore their different approaches to basketball and life and to reconcile their own converging histories. Most deft at portraying the evolution from wide-eyed ingenue translator of the 1970s, to cold authoritarian 1989 Chinese coach is Wen Chang (played with agile back-and-forth-in-time dexterity by Grant Chang). The acting quartet was rounded out by Lois Shih as Manford’s older cousin Connie.
Director Jennifer Chang’s fast-paced production was punchy and lively. Though the ensemble was small, the choreography and velocity of the production deploy the four performers to create an atmosphere of many more characters onstage, in fact, a basketball coliseum full—enhanced by Roc Lee’s sound design of ball-on-court and roar-of-the-crowd effects. A shout-out must go to the performance’s “fifth man,” the visual projections co-designed by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, employing scenic designer Tony Cisek’s abstract set as a screen for historical context and powerful optics.
For those less familiar with the events of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, there may be some confusion differentiating fact and fiction as presented in the play – and perhaps some discomfort over appropriating a powerful protest moment. But the hijacking of history was intentional, with playwright Lauren Yee adopting as her signature a technique of colliding the personal with the historical, creating a thought-provoking fable that reminds us that we can extrapolate many sliding door stories from a significant event, that—even if they aren’t real—can still ring true. While the plot can be factually challenging to accept, verisimilitude is less the goal here than unpeeling the battle-scarred characters’ stagnancy, growth, blindness, reflection, and enlightenment.
The Great Leap is playing at Round House Theatre (610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004) through December 5, 2021. Running time: approximately two hours with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or click here.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Patrons must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination upon entry and wear masks while attending performances, with limited exceptions. Click here for full details.