Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Great Leap
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Dead Man's Cell Phone

Lee Sellers and Kurt Kwan
Photo by Dan Norman
Lauren Yee's play about cultural identity, Chinese political history, and basketball, The Great Leap, has bounced onto the court on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage with a highly spirited, beautifully wrought production directed by Desdemona Chiang.

Yee is a prolific Chinese-American playwright, having had nine new plays produced over a span of eleven years, starting with Ching Chong Chinaman, which premiered at Berkeley's Impact Theatre in 2008 and was seen here the following year in a Theatre Mu production. The Great Leap was first seen by audiences in Minneapolis via a workshop at the Playwrights Center. In the two years since, it has had readings, workshops and/or full productions in Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and New York. Later this year, the play will leap forward with productions in San Francisco, Vancouver and Philadelphia.

Yee clearly has an abundance of dramatic ideas and ambition for communicating them on stage. The Great Leap certainly has ideas on its mind, communicated with clarity enough by Yee's characters. We glimpse the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution that roiled through China in the 1960s, the transition to market economy and guarded embrace of westernization, and the blowback in 1989 when a burgeoning democracy movement was brutally squashed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. We are given insights into the differences between Chinese and American outlooks on sports and on leadership, and also gain sympathy for the plight of Manford, a young Chinese-American man who is searching for his identity. However, these ideas are poorly integrated in a plot that seems jerry-rigged as a device for getting its thoughts on the stage at the expense of credibility.

Opening in 1989, 17-year-old Manford begs for a spot on the University of San Francisco basketball team that has been invited to play against a team in China. The USF coach, Saul, was sent to China back in 1971, with the Cultural Revolution winding down, and taught the game to a young Chinese team. His team has now been invited for what he understands to be a "friendship game." Manford talks a mile a minute—the kid obviously has seen lots of high-pressure infomercials—begging Saul to put him on the team. The boy's Chinese-born mother has just died, but his sense of loss is checked by his feeling that he never really knew her and she really knew him, while his father, who never left China, is literally unknown to him.

The play veers back to 1971 in Beijing, when Saul relied on his interpreter Wen Chang to translate both the strategies and the attitudes that make winning ballplayers. Key among those is: "It's always your turn." For Wen Chang, steeped in norms of propriety and obedience, and under the thumb of an unforgiving dictatorship where stepping just a foot out of turn can cost you your life, "It's always your turn" is a mind-blowing concept. Wen Chang is further challenged to translate Saul's vulgarisms into Chinese. Wen Chang becomes an astute student of the sport, and Saul recommends him to be named coach of the incipient Chinese team. Thus, in 1989 it is Wen Chang who plays host to Saul and his team.

The play hinges on the emerging relationships between Manford and Saul, Saul and Wen Chang, and Manford and Wen Chang. Each of these might feel compelling in their own right, but the clumsy manner in which Yee brings these into the narrative—far-fetched coincidences and unexplained plot points—undermines the play's claim to address serious issues and turns it in the direction of a shaggy dog story. A fourth character in the play, Manford's older cousin Connie, serves to provide some leverage against Manford's excesses and unrealistic goals.

For some reason Yee created a college basketball coach who cannot utter a sentence without using a four-letter word. In fact, Saul is very inventive in his use of expletives and, taken one by one, some of these are quite entertaining, triggering hearty laughter, but the sheer volume seems intended merely to underscore Saul's baseness. Is he meant to represent the crass American? The insertion of profanity to such an extreme distracts from this and other points in the play, making it all merely laughable.

While The Great Leap's lapses keep it from achieving as much as a mediation on the clashes of Chinese and American cultures, a capsule history of China in the 1970s and 1980s, or a portrait of a young man searching for identity between two cultures, it is an entertaining work of theatre, and the Guthrie has given it a shiny, smoothly staged and well-acted production. Director Desdemona Chiang has collaborated before with Yee, and displays a deft touch for allowing the humor in the text to hit its mark without taking the more serious undercurrent off course, and the play's shifts in time (1971 and 1989) and between San Francisco and Beijing, as well as in voice—Wen Chang sometimes taking on the role of narrator, speaking directly to the audience—are presented with seamless clarity.

Kurt Kwan gives a stirring performance as Wen Chang, demonstrating his inner transformation from modest, somewhat clueless interpreter for this hyperactive American coach, to a man who has attained some stature within his county's rigid hierarchy, but who is fully aware of how easily such success can be taken away. Even Kwan's voice changes in tone from the naïve younger Wen Chang to the wiser coach constrained by his fears. His somber persona is in stark contrast to Saul's vulgar, ambitious coach, who becomes a caricature by comparison, but Lee Sellers does a swell job of bringing Saul to life. He tosses off his non-stop f-bombs as if it is his native tongue, and makes evident Saul's aggressive need to live by his mantra: "It is always your turn."

Lawrence Kao makes his first Twin Cities stage appearance as Manford, drawing sympathy to this kid on the brink of manhood, unsure of his identity, adrift from his family. He is searching for an anchor, and has made basketball the point of entry to that search. Kao is funny when the script calls on him to be funny, but allows Manford to remain a tender and pained character. As his cousin Connie, Leah Anderson provides a strong performance, though for most of the play the role has little to do but react to and encourage others. In one scene, in which she faces off against Saul, Anderson movingly draws up Connie's strength and devotion to her family.

The physical production is beautifully designed, with a set by Sara Ryung Clementi and lighting by Paul P. Whitaker that create the range of spaces, from a college gym to a low-level Chinese official's simple home. Helen Huang's costumes are spot on. Tom Mays contributes powerful projections that draw us into the mayhem when the "friendship game" in Beijing crosses paths with the protests and police brutality in Tiananmen Square.

Of course, The Great Leap refers to both the Chinese nation-building campaign from 1958-1962 that ended in failure and presaged the Cultural Revolution, and to the sport of basketball, with China's development into a powerhouse representing an actual advancement among nations. In that, in Manford's entrapment between two cultures, and in the contest of wills between Saul and Wen Chang, are the themes for several powerful plays. By putting them together, Yee's ambitions may have exceeded her grasp. The Great Leap began as a commission from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and perhaps more time for development without pressure to meet a commission deadline would have led to a more seamless and credible weaving of these elements into a strong narrative. As it stands, The Great Leap is worth seeing for strong performances and production values, and a glimpse into the history of modern China

The Great Leap, through February 10, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2ndStreet, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $78.00. Senior (age 65+), student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats 30 minutes before performance, when available, from $20.00 - $25.00, cash or check only. For ticket information call 612-377-2224 or go to

Playwright: Lauren Yee; Director: Desdemona Chiang; Scenic Design: Sara Ryung Clementi; Costume Design: Helen Huang; Lighting Design: Paul P. Whitaker; Sound Design: Sarah Picket; Projection Design: Tom Mays; Voice and Dialogue Coach: Keely Wolter; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Tierra K. Harrison; Assistant Director: Sun Mee Chomet; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Katherine Horowitz (sound).

Cast: Leah Anderson (Connie), Lawrence Kao (Manford), Kurt Kwan (Wen Chang), Lee Sellers (Saul).