Sunday, February 2, 2020

“The Great Leap”: Another Challenging Fete By Playwright Lauren Yee.

It must fortuitous that on the day after Cygnet Theatre in Old Town opened the San Diego premiere production of Lauren Yee’s (“Cambodian Rock Band”)  “The Great Leap”, a basketball yarn with political and social implications, that the big news of the hour would be filled with the tragic death of one of America’s all time legendary, popular and winning basketball hero’s, Kobe Bryant.

The coincidence of a basketball hero and his untimely death juxtaposed over San Diego State’s undefeated basketball team, the Aztecs, puts the game directly in the spotlight. Even to this day players are calling for changes behind the scenes as racial discourse flies out the door; but that’s a subject for another play.

Playwright and UCSD graduate Lauren Yee’s assigns this new essay “The Great Leap” to her ties with basketball that go back to her childhood memories of life in Chinatown, San Francisco, where her farther played ‘every day’. He also toured China with his amateur team.
Manny Fernandes
Her new play “The Great Leap”, now in a San Diego Premiere through Feb. 16th is symbolically about basketball, but leaps back and forth in time as cultural differences, private grievances, renewed memories, individual challenges and human rights in China under Chairman Mao, intersect.

Saul, (in a knockout performance by Manny Fernandez) is the foul- or as the playwright says in the script ‘shit talking’- mouthed American coach, is being challenged by Wen Chang (Edward Chen in a rock solid performance) a now grown man caught between two worlds.

 Chang, the dignified and soft -spoken Chinese coach of Beijing University’s men’s basketball team, learned his coaching skills back to his long ago haunts when Saul mentored him on the art of coaching in1971.

Then Saul and his undefeated team came tip off to tip off with an easy to defeat China team. Even though it was an exhibition game, the chance to settle the score becomes high on a priority list of things to settle with the Americans.

Taking lessons from the past and fast -forwarding them to another court, the now older Saul and the more seasoned, less in the spotlight Chang (“growing up, you did not want to be someone: You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Because being someone could get you killed”), face off in the courts of political unrest.   

Chang is potentially more dangerous now since being rooted by his time in China. He is more hardened and determined not to let the past victory of the US happen again. The matchup becomes more of a mental game than a physical one. “It’s China, four days, what could happen?” 

Student Manford (scrappy and fun to watch Scott Keiji Takeda) a Chinese American hot shot wants to play for Saul and will do anything in his power to make it happen.

Even though his 5”5’ height has him at a disadvantage to the eye he proves himself to Saul by taking shot after shot, 99 into an imaginary hoop to prove to Saul what an asset he would be to his team.  In reality, his motives for wanting to go China will play out in a side story as the truths of his past unfold and we learn more of the relationship to his cousin Connie (a beautiful Keiko Green) and Chen.  

MANFORD: I am the most feared player in Chinatown.
SAUL: And I’m the least circumcised Jew from the Bronx but you don't see me going on about it.  (Say What???) 

Manny Fernandes, Keiko Green Scott Keiji and Edward Chen
The dealings and deals in the locker room where mano- a mano threats, goals, family secrets, secrets in general and political upheaval in particular take place on a court with a realistic looking basketball court surrounded by rows of basketballs off to the sides, and a basketball hoop that hangs above the middle of the house, is designed by Yi-Chien Lee.  

In the background, projections of civil and political strife overlay some famous moments in basketball in black and white and scratchy color.  China and especially in Tiananmen Square riots broke out when the American’s and Chinese were about to have a rematch of a long ago game. (Blake McCarty). The action toggles back and forth between San Francisco, CA 1989 and Beijing, China 1971 and 1989.

In her award winning “Cambodian Rock Band” Ms. Lee weaves a political travisty using popular rock bands at the time as the backdrop for the politics the and genocide of 2 million Cambodian citizens under the dictatorship of the Khmer Rough. The rock band in the title connects the two.

Now in “The Great Leap”, Ms. Yee uses sports by injecting politics and athletics to make her points. In China under Mao’s social engineering or ‘The Great Leap Forward’ in 1957, where tens of millions were also persecuted and murdered, she uses the art of  advantage in basketball as her jumping off point.    

In telling Miss Yee’s story Rob Lutfy, director extraordinaire, has framed this comedy/drama in a realistic, moment-by-moment, frame-by-frame in history with quality acting from his foursome of actors.
Scott Keiji Takeda and Cast
Adding to the overall excellence of the look include a first -rate set design, sound design by Melanie Chen Cole, past and present period clothes by Shirley Pierson, and mood appropriate lighting designed by (Minjoo Kim) all aimed to keep focus on the message not the messenger.  

“The Great Leap”, “Canbodian Rock Band”; what’s next for this young innovator, playwright and political watchdog?

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb.16th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619-337-1525
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4040 Twiggs Street,  Old Town
Ticket Prices: Start at $25.00
Photo Credit: Karli Cadel Photography

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