Tommy Bo (left) and Sami Ma in The Great Leap, a co-production between Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre. Now playing through Sunday, Feb. 13. PHOTO BY OWEN CAREY/COURTESY PORTLAND CENTER STAGE
Chinese-American playwright Lauren Yee knows how to direct our attention across cultures and generations in a way that reverberates beyond the stories she tells with humor and skill.
Her play “Cambodian Rock Band” (whose planned opening at Portland Center Stage was halted by the pandemic in early 2020) thrilled audiences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (see my review herewww.portlandobserver.com/news/2019/jul/31/inspiring-homage-destroyed-culture-history) and is scheduled to begin a national tour this year; it mines the relationship between a Cambodian American woman and her father, whose budding music career was shut down by traumatic events in Cambodia.
“The Great Leap,” now playing at Portland Center Stage, also opens up space for us to wonder across space and time. What connections exist between the descendants of immigrant parents and their parents or ancestors who were faced with choices the descendants cannot fathom? How might the passions of the child reflect the passions and struggles of the parent? What clues do our bodies offer about where we come from? What gets lost and what can be recovered in the relationships between Chinese-American people and Chinese people—both those who left China and those who stayed?
As with Yee’s other work, “The Great Leap” involves an interesting story that can be appreciated simply for its humor and its lessons in history. Manford is a Chinese-American high school student who is determined to talk himself onto a spot on a college team that is headed to Beijing to play a friendship basketball tournament in 1989. He is all determination and guts, and all devotion to this most American of games—and he wears down and ultimately impresses Saul, the American coach who needs this competition in China to save his flagging career; he thinks the Chinese will be an easy mark. Saul imagines himself to be the teacher to the Chinese man, Wen Chang, who served as his interpreter during his first visit to China 18 years before and who now coaches the Chinese team. And Manford’s cousin, Connie, senses some things about China and Manford’s origins that Manford doesn’t suspect. What follows is funny, interesting and suspenseful.
If we want to go there, the play contains mysteries beyond the entertaining story at its surface. It turns out that basketball has its own resonance with Chinese culture that American audiences typically don’t appreciate. The sport originated in America, but became a favorite among Chinese people; indeed, it is one of the few connections to Western culture that survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s purge of Western influences, in part because Mao Zedong himself favored the game. Basketball also proves a good vehicle for some of what Yee wants to convey about the differences and connections between American culture and Chinese culture, including the emphasis on team work that resonates with the Chinese, and the game’s space for individual drive so important to Americans. As Saul instructs Manford, “it is always your turn.” But in what sense is that true, for Manford, for Saul and for Wen Chang?
Yee constructs the play’s witty dialogue and movement with basketball in mind, shifting the play’s perspective with the characters’ contrasting perspectives and motivations. In this solid cast, Kenneth Lee as Wen Chang, is a standout; he moves through the world watchfully, hanging back, presenting a contrast with the bravado of Saul and Manford, fooling us (or at least Saul) into thinking that he is less formidable than it turns out he is. The play uses the shifts in energy and power between Wen Chang and Saul, and then Manford, to open space for us to wonder about what young people may miss about their elders, about what motivates those who leave a home country to immigrate, and about what they lose in separating from those left behind. In this soulful play, Yee offers us the opportunity to leave with questions we hadn’t entertained when we arrived.
“The Great Leap” plays at Portland Center Stage through Sunday, Feb. 13.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.