The Great Leap

At the Steppenwolf Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago—Last season, Lauren Yee introduced herself to Chicagoland theater audiences with “Cambodian Rock Band,” an imaginative and stimulating political play given a smashing production at the Victory Gardens Theater. Yee is back with the Chicago premiere of her 2018 political play “The Great Leap” at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre. “The Great Leap” is a smaller play than “Cambodian Rock Band” and has its problems storywise, but it still reinforces Yee as a Playwright to Watch on the current American drama scene.

“The Great Leap” shuttles back and forth between the United States and China in 1971 and 1989. The action starts at a basketball court at the University of San Francisco where a 17-year old Chinese American named Manford (Glenn Obrero) is trying to convince the university basketball coach Saul Plezac (Keith Kupferer) to let him play on the college’s basketball team. The obscenity-spouting coach bluntly informs the lad that he’s got no chance, first because the current season is already over and second, because Manford is too short, way under six feet tall, to play college basketball.

Manford doesn’t take rejection for an answer and badgers the coach until he gives in. The college team is traveling to China to play a single “friendship” game against a national Chinese team and Manford wants to play in that game, desperately for personal reasons that have nothing to do with patriotism.

  Photo Credit- Michael Brosilow

The story then shifts back to 1971. Saul is visiting China as a guest basketball coach and comes into contact with Wen Chang (James Seol), his translator. Saul gets a glimpse of the oppressive lifestyle in China where players pass the ball rather than shoot because they fear missing a shot, which could bring down the disapproval of the Chinese authorities and cost individuals their jobs, their freedom, or their lives. Saul smugly states that a Chinese team will never defeat an American team, and will discover that the Chinese have a long memory when it comes to perceived insults.

We return to 1989, when an American team, coached by Saul with Manford on the roster, arrives in China to play the national team in a single game, a game the Chinese take very seriously. Wen Chang is now the Chinese head coach and he wants to win the game very badly. A loss might have major personal repercussions. The American cause is damaged, probably fatally, when Manford is photographed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during the famous student protests. Wen Chang accuses Manford of participating in an anti-government action and thus will not be allowed to play in the game, dooming the American chances.

Until this point in the play “The Great Leap” is doing very nicely with its breezy dialogue and its intriguing views of the contrasting American and Chinese cultures, one  open and outspoken and the other humorless and tightly regulated. But halfway into the second act the playwright unveils a plot twist that charley horses the long arm of coincidence by revealing a previously unsuspected connection between the older Chinese man and young Manford. The teenager also has his own personal agenda involving his recently deceased mother.

The play largely focuses on Wen Chang as the action shifts to the actual game, which the audience follows on electronic scoreboards mounted above the seats. There is built-in suspense over which team will win the high stakes game, but Yee either doesn’t know much about basketball or she is willing to take an ostentatious amount of license to make a plot point. The Chinese team runs up what should be an insurmountable 47-12 halftime lead, until Manford takes over the game, rallying the Americans to a frantic but ambiguous conclusion apparently without assistance from his off-stage teammates. Michael Jordan at his surreal greatest never single handedly erased a 35 point halftime lead.

      Photo Credit- Michael Brosilow

“The Great Leap” has only four characters, one of whom is Manford’s cousin Connie (Deanna Myers doing the best she can in an inconsequential role). The play is a triangle of interlocking relationships among Manford (hyper), Wen Chang (wound tight), and Saul Plezac (vulgar), with Saul emerging as the most colorful and entertaining of the trio. The ensemble may be small but the actors all give distinctive, commanding performances.

The action is confined to a simulated basketball court. There are some mimed shots at an invisible basket and Manford shows a lot of rapid tap dancing-like moves I’ve never seen in a real game. Projections and film above the seats flesh out the storyline, especially snippets of scenes of the young Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square. It’s a minimalist production but effective.

The key production credits go to Justin Humphres (set), Jenny Mannis (costumes), Keith Parham (lighting), Pornchanok Kanchanabanca (sound and original music), and Rasean Davonte Johnson (projections). Director Jesca Prudencio does a fine job of managing the story’s various time and place frames although I could have used more clarity in Wen Chang’s personal dilemmas in the second act.

Viewers who relished Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” may be disappointed in “The Great Leap,” a miniature that doesn’t reach for nearly as much as the longer play. But within the thematic and technical limits Yee set for herself, “The Great Leap” is worth seeing as a historical document and an intriguing set of character studies. It touches a lot of interesting thematic bases for all its confining structure and definitely whets our appetite for Yee’s next play.

‘The Great Leap’ gets a rating of

“The Great Leap” runs through October 20 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $89. Call 312 335 1650 or visit

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