Lauren Yee is having a moment in San Diego theatre. A UC San Diego MFA graduate, Ms. Yee’s play, Cambodian Rock Band closed 2019 at La Jolla Playhouse, and her play The Great Leap opens 2020 at Cygnet Theatre. Each was an exciting production in its own way, but Cygnet’s, for me, is all the more exciting in the its home-grown, as opposed to via Portland, Ashland, and Costa Mesa.
The Great Leap is about basketball, which is also having a moment in San Diego, what with the Aztecs having gone 21-0 for the season as of this writing. But, it’s also about guts, glory, and geo-politics, with a major trope about redemption thrown in for good measure.
And, it’s a story that bears a fair similarity to the experience of Ms. Yee’s father, a scrappy playground basketball champ in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Ms. Yee’s version takes place in 1989, during the democracy movement that arose following the hardship of the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Manford (Scott Keiji Takeda), the character resembling Ms. Yee’s father, confronts Saul (Manny Fernandes) the coach of the University of San Francisco basketball team. Saul is about to take the team to Beijing to play against a PRC team. The two teams met years before, and Saul’s team had an easy time of it. Before he left, he installed his Chinese protégé, Wen Chang (Edward Chen), as team coach.
Manford brashly tells Saul that he’s a washed-up coach. His teams had several losing seasons, and Saul is in danger of losing the job he’s held for a long time. What may save him is a victory in a high-profile game, such as the one in Beijing. But Manford also gives Saul a scouting report: PRC basketball players have grown tall since the USF team beat them earlier.
Rob Lufty’s direction is fast-paced and scrappy, with elbows akimbo. He leads Saul and the cast through a series of confrontations, from Manford’s Aunt Connie (Keiko Green), who he needs to get paperwork signed so Manford can join the USF team, to assembling the team in Beijing amid the protests in Tiananmen Square, to his wary reunion with Wen Chang prior to the game.
Basketball is both the reality and the metaphor of the play. Yi-Chien Lee has designed the set as a basketball court, with raised hoop, hardwood flooring, and basketballs displayed at the ready. Her work is clean, sharp, fresh, and nothing like any set I’ve seen at Cygnet previously. Blake McCarty pulls his stellar projection design from period news clips. Minjoo Kim’s lighting design necessarily contrasts light with dark, so that the projections can have their desired effect. Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design aids in building tension throughout. Shirley Pierson designs casual basketball wear, as well as costumes that would have been worn when Saul first visited Beijing.
The acting is as high-energy as the directing, so much so that occasional lulls in the storytelling need to be covered in some way (and Mr. Lufty and his cast do so with aplomb). Mr. Fernandes creates a shopworn, foul-mouthed Saul, determinedly pulling himself together for one last hoorah. Mr. Takeda makes Manford young, eager, and smart. Ms. Green’s Connie knows a lot about Manford – and about the PRC. And, Mr. Chen’s Wen Chang holds his cards close to his vest, much as Ms. Yee likes to do.
In fact, Ms. Yee overtly pulls what has been background into the foreground as a means of ending the play. Her climax is dramatic and politically savvy, possible but not plausible. Lucy Kirkwood’s Olivier Award-winning 2013 play, Chimerica, does a much more interesting job of playing off the same set of events. It was recently made into a mini-series for British television. The four episodes of the mini-series may be streamed here. I highly recommend it.
Despite the disappointing conclusion, Lauren Yee is still having her moment – one of many to come, I think. Cygnet’s production of The Great Leap is a definite winner, with fast-breaks, dogged defense, and lots of sunk three-point shots.
Performs Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30PM, Friday at 8:00PM, Saturday at 3:00PM and 8:00PM, and Sunday at 2:00PM and 7:00PM through February 16, 2020. There are a number of free parking lots in Old Town but also much going on there, so parking can be hard to find. The performance includes one 15 minute intermission. This review is based on the press opening performance, January 25, 2020.