Basketball serves as a loaded backdrop in The Great Leap (★★☆☆☆), Lauren Yee’s seriocomic fable of international exchange between the U.S. and China. Revolving around two fictional exhibition games between American and Chinese teams — one matchup in 1971, the other coinciding with the ’89 protests in Tiananmen Square — the play explores politics, history, and identity through the lens of sports, though it’s concerned less with free throws and layups than with cultural commentary.
Still, the action drives towards a climactic Big Game in Beijing. In the regional premiere at Round House Theatre, director Jennifer Chang stages the finale of on-court action with building swirls of hectic movement. Offering a spare abstraction of a full-court contest, Chang sends the four cast members bustling through formations, as each character narrates their share of the gameplay, as well as pivotal off-court events in Tiananmen Square.
Rotating in and out of center on an in-stage turntable, the actors gather speed and intensity, their narration reaching a crescendo with the game’s dramatic conclusion, and photographic images of the Square light up set designer Tony Cisek’s wall of obsidian planks. The intended mood of the scene seems clear, but the overall effect is disjointed, the visual busyness a distraction from the storytelling. Landing clumsily on an audacious note of speculative history, the play ends in a stir of action and information that doesn’t feel like a resolution to the story we’ve been watching.
Yee sets the table well with spunky Chinese-American teenager Manford (Randy Nguyen Ta), a talented point guard, talking himself onto the college basketball team that comically crusty Coach Saul (Eric Hissom) plans to take to China for a friendly game. Echoing the so-called sports diplomacy of an actual 1971 exhibition between U.S. and Chinese ping-pong teams, the fictional match-up poses a ripe opportunity for probing the two nations’ fraught relationship following China’s Great Leap Forward into communism.
Coach Wen Chang (Grant Chang), Saul’s translator, boils those cultural differences down to a pithy repeated expression of the American mentality, “It’s always your turn.” Chang combines stern seriousness with deadpan delivery for a subtle, well-rounded portrait.
Hissom’s Saul gets the broader humor, which the performer puts over with foul-mouthed gusto, if a hint too much eagerness to please. Playing Manford’s “cousin” Connie, a loving voice of reason, Lois Shih brings admirable energy, though not much insight to the part. She forges a nice rapport with Ta, though, whose Manford also bonds persuasively with Coach Saul as they train for the big game.
Carrying the show’s physical connection to the sport at hand, Ta does little to sell Manford’s playing prowess, other than looking spiffy in the uniform. He conveys the kid’s confidence, if not his moves — but then neither does the production resolve how to marry the movement and language of the game with the meaning behind the drama.
The Great Leap in-person performances run through Dec. 5 at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, with virtual performances via streaming-on-demand starting Nov. 26. In-person tickets are $60-$78. Digital streaming access is $32.50. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!