Set in Beijing and San Francisco in 1971 and 1989, Lauren Yee’s witty, cross-cultural coming-of-age story “The Great Leap” concerns an American basketball team journeying to Beijing for a “friendship game.” Backdropped partly by the student uprising in Tiananmen Square, it inevitably hums with contemporary relevance, thanks to pro-democracy protests that have been riveting Hong Kong for five months. The play opens Wednesday at Pasadena Playhouse.
“I think everyone producing the play right now, they’re having that moment where they’re like, ‘OMG, I picked the right play,’” says BD Wong, the Tony Award-winning actor who is directing this production. In the past year “The Great Leap” has been produced at eight theaters across the country, and it’s scheduled to be staged at four more in 2020.
While acknowledging the show’s inadvertent timeliness, Wong points out it’s “quite a comedy,” albeit one with “real weight to it that sneaks up on you.” The history-echoing similarity of a government “appearing to be struggling with how to deal with” internationally monitored protests is a “huge component” of the play, but not its plot.
“Resonance manifests itself in surprising ways,” Wong says. “All plays, hopefully, are opportunities for discussion. This is no exception.”
At its core, says Yee, the play is about identity.
“China in the 1980s was a country struggling to figure out its identity. After China opened back up to the West, there was this question of, what kind of country will China be? We thought China would become a lot more aligned with Western ideas of democracy and free speech than actually happened. So for these characters who are literally living through history, and living through a critical time in the world, it’s a nice reminder that we are living history every day and that the current events of today make up the history of tomorrow. …
“In sports, you’re very frequently asked for your affiliation: Are you American? Are you Chinese? What happens when you feel somewhere in between that? I think that’s something the character of Manford, the young man similar to my father, experiences his entire life.”
Manford, the 17-year-old Chinese-American basketball player portrayed by Justin Chien, interacts onstage with his cousin Connie (Christine Lin) and coaches Wen Chang (Grant Chang) and Saul (James Eckhouse). Collectively, they illuminate the ways that “a single individual can impact great big events,” Yee says. “I think we love sports stories because we see the individual power and contributions that a single body can make.”
That theme of “an individual in change” is key, Wong says. “To use the word ‘accessible’ sounds like a diminishing kind of word, but Lauren’s plays are extremely enjoyable to watch. At the same time, they bring a point of view and an authenticity, culturally, that’s really rich. Regional theaters around this country are starved for diverse content that is written in a way that allows diversity and cultural issues to be fully explored at the same time as serving their audience with basic entertainment.”
Wong won a Tony Award as Best Actor in 1988 for his performance in “M. Butterfly,” and is well known for his work in TV (“Mr. Robot,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Oz”) and film (“Jurassic Park,” “Seven Years in Tibet”). A San Francisco native who lives in New York (like Yee), he garnered enthusiastic reviews for his portrayal of Wen Chang in productions of “The Great Leap” in New York and San Francisco. This co-production by Pasadena Playhouse and East West Players represents a meaningful rounding of a circle for him, as he recalls performing at both theaters “within the space of a few months” at the “very, very beginning” of his acting career.
Serving as director enables him to more directly shape the storytelling, he acknowledges, although he didn’t realize he wanted to do that until he was offered the job. His acting experience doesn’t make him harder on his cast, necessarily (“They can get away with less fudging or BS”), but his training does guide him to “prioritize the ideas of the writer.”
“My teachers were always trying to impress upon us that we were going to do our best work if we could commit ourselves to the role of the messenger, because acting can be very indulgent. … When you actually realize that your real job is to serve a writer and to make sure that you are being true to what the writer meant, then it focuses your priorities.”
The play climaxes with a 10-minute scene at a big game, and the script’s high-energy rhythm, Wong says, evokes basketball “in a linguistic way that’s really fun to explore.” (“What I love to bring as a storyteller is deep, painful laughter,” Yee wisecracks.) Comedy aside, any play feels more believable the more grounded it is in reality, and Wong says their “extremely rich” foundational research is helping everyone understand China, its citizenry, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the lopsided power dynamics created when one society has free access to information denied another society.
“A big part of the direction of this production, from my point of view, is underscoring the gravity of that situation for people in China and the size of it,” he observes.
“The idea that an American kid can effect change because it comes easily to him and that a Chinese citizen cannot do so easily, the struggle that comes with wanting to change the course of your life or circumstance — that juxtaposition is a central part of this play. There’s an American character and a Chinese character, and their points of view when it comes to making change sit in very strong relief and contrast to one another. That discussion is stimulating for Americans to be experiencing, especially now when there is a certain kind of confusion, almost. I think we’re in a state of turmoil where some people are craving a re-acknowledgement of what democracy means. In their frustration about the administration, they might be just clamoring for a discussion of the power of democracy and the power of an individual being able to change the world for the better.”
“The Great Leap” opens at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, and runs through Dec. 1; tickets start at $25. Info: (626) 356-7529. Pasadenaplayhouse.org