Basketball? I don’t really know much about it, but I’m eagerly awaiting the opening of “The Great Leap,” a hoop-centric play coming to Old Town San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre Jan. 22, 2020. Written by multi-award-winner Lauren Yee, it was one of the 10 most-produced plays in the United States in 2019, along with her “Cambodian Rock Band,” recently staged at La Jolla Playhouse.
“The Great Leap,” which premiered in Denver in 2018, is about an American basketball team going to China for an exhibition game. There’s more than a game at stake; there are long-buried personal histories, a clash of dreams and ambitions, and the main setting is Beijing in 1989, when student protesters were about to be massacred in Tienanmen Square. With all this going on, there’s still plenty of humor — one of the playwright’s conspicuous gifts.
There are just four characters in the play: Manford, a Chinese-American high-school basketball whiz who talks and slam-dunks his way onto the San Francisco college team; his cousin Connie, who is his only family; Saul, a mouthy American coach who originally took a team to China in 1971; and Wen Chang, now the Beijing University coach, who was Saul’s translator back then.
“The Great Leap” was inspired by Yee’s father’s stories about being a hotshot young hoopster in San Francisco’s Chinatown and part of a team that traveled to China for “friendship games” in the 1980s. It’s not the first time Yee has used her father — whom she calls a larger-than-life character — as inspiration; he was the heart of her 2017 “King of the Yees.”
Besides sounding basketball-appropriate, the play’s title also references China’s Great Leap Forward in 1958 to 1962, when the Communist Party’s attempt to fast-forward an industrial revolution caused the deaths of millions of people by torture, execution and famine. Mao’s Cultural Revolution followed; those who lived through such events found them hard to forget.
What drew Rob Lutfy, Cygnet’s associate artistic director, to take on “The Great Leap”?
“I love Lauren Yee’s plays,” he said. “She’s always doing something uniquely theatrical, they’re always about family and family secrets, and when the secrets are revealed, there’s catharsis,” he said. “This one really moved me because growing up in North Carolina, basketball was a big part of my life; my father and I used to play every day. And though we think of basketball as a quintessentially American sport, it’s more popular in China than it is here. Missionaries brought it there in the 1800s, and it really caught on. Chairman Mao loved basketball; it was the only Western sport he allowed in China.”
But you don’t have to be a B-ball fan or Chinese history buff to love “The Great Leap,” Lutfy emphasized. “It moves like a basketball game, but it’s a human, American story, about what home and family really mean.”
The one female in the play, Keiko Green, originated the role of Connie in the Denver/Seattle co-production. Inspired by the example of Lauren Yee — a UCSD Theater Department alumna — she is currently working toward her own MFA in playwriting at UCSD, and her dark comedy, “The History of Death,” will be part of their Wagner New Play Festival this spring.
She talked about her character, Connie, a grad student in Asian Studies who feels a strong connection to her Chinese heritage. “She’s the only American in the play who understands what’s going on politically in China,” Green said. “And she knows how to be one of the boys. So do I; I grew up with older brothers. And one of the reasons I keep coming back to this play is that it asks what it means to stand up and take action, which I think is very important to consider right now.”
Previews of “The Great Leap” begin Jan. 22, 2020. Opening night is Jan. 25, and the timing couldn’t be more auspicious: it’s the start of the Chinese New Year.
• IF YOU GO: “The Great Leap” takes the stage Jan. 22-Feb. 16, 2020 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town San Diego. Tickets: From $25. (619) 337-1525. cygnettheatre.com