In June, the Washington Post published an article about the June 4, 1989, slaughter in China’s Tiananmen Square, when armed tanks and the Chinese army opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters peacefully demanding the country’s repressive, authoritarian regime move toward a democracy. The death count ranges from hundreds to thousands—China has made statistics unavailable and scrubbed the country’s Internet of any mention of the uprising. As the Post noted, many Chinese born after 2000 don’t even know the brutally repressed revolution happened. With The Great Leap, American playwright Lauren Yee puts audiences in the center of that sweltering June movement and the erasure that followed. As the script points out, China was “already learning to forget” by June 5.
Directed by Jesca Prudencio, The Great Leap is based on real events, specifically the 1989 “friendship game” in Beijing between a Chinese team and a San Francisco team of Chinese American players. As she so masterfully did with Cambodian Rock Band, Yee filters the story of nightmarishly repressive government through the eyes of immensely sympathetic characters. Here, we’re on the heels of 17-year-old San Fran B-ball phenom Manford Lum (Glenn Obrero). When Manford becomes lost in Tiananmen Square, the consequences ripple into stormy international waters even as Manford’s personal story comes into sharp focus.
The action begins in 1971, when Chinese Communist Party operative Wen Chang (James Seol) becomes coach of the Chinese team. He’s mentored (sort of) by U.S. coach Saul (Keith Kupferer, delivering everyman profanities better than anyone you’re ever apt to see onstage). When the two meet again in 1989, the Tiananmen uprising engulfs them both. Yee makes the culture clash both wrenching and—often—incongruously funny. The juxtaposition of humor with tragedy is scalpel sharp, especially when Wen Chang is charged with translating the mishmash of grammar-free profanities Saul favors. The laughter throughout makes the production’s final image—and its implications for the characters on stage—all the more wrenching.
Prudencio’s ensemble is winning, no matter the scoreboard count on scenic designer Justin Humphres’s basketball-court set. Obrero is all sinewy muscle and relentless, youthful brashness—until he’s faced with the one person able to shatter his facade of hyperactive self-confidence. Seol makes Wen Chang’s journey vivid: In 1971, he’s stooped, deferential, and shocked by Saul’s brand of U.S. aggression. In 1989, he’s upright, canny, and confident, a savvy politico in a country where one misstep or wrong word can get you imprisoned.
Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design captures the massive Tiananmen protests with terrible, hard-hitting beauty. Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s original music sonically heightens the stakes with subtlety throughout. Keith Parham’s zippy lighting design captures the speed and intricacy of real-life basketball.
The drama’s final moments put a personal spin on a globally iconic image of bravery. The man in the image is lost—no one knows for certain who he was or what became of him. Still, hope has a way of floating. It’s treading water in The Great Leap, to the beat of basketballs bouncing like heart palpitations. v