Manford, the protagonist of Lauren Yee’s elegant gem of a play The Great Leap, is—in his own words—relentless.
“I am the most relentless person you have ever met, and if you have met someone more relentless than me, tell me and I will meet them and I will find a way to become even more relentless than them,” he declares.
Manford is a fascinating individual, but he’s just one of many in The Great Leap, which is set largely in 1989 and has been beautifully brought to life by Artists Repertory Theatre and Portland Center Stage. The play is packed with crisply developed characters who only become more compelling as their motives reveal themselves over the course of a story that brilliantly subverts sports movie clichés.
Tommy Bo stars as Manford, a basketball-obsessed 17-year-old Chinatown high school kid who pursues a spot on the University of San Francisco’s Division I basketball team, which is set to play a “friendly game” in Beijing against the Beijing University team.
That means Manford has to impress the USF team’s coach, Saul (Darius Pierce), an aging, wildly obscene Bronx taskmaster. Saul is determined to beat China—he once foolishly claimed it could never beat an American team—but glory will only get him so far, given the slim odds of his contract being renewed.
Manford’s single-mindedness—and 99 free throws in a row—convince the irascible Saul to put him on the roster for the game in China. Despite the objections of his cousin, Connie (Sami Ma), Manford then joins the team as it flies to Beijing, with Saul berating the players along the way with what is best described as a more colorful version of Nancy Pelosi’s warning to “not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless.”
While Manford’s journey dominates The Great Leap, Yee keeps glancing back to the days when Saul traveled to Beijing as a young man to teach basketball. That’s how we learn the life story of Wen Chang (Kenneth Lee), who in 1971 served as Saul’s translator and is now Beijing University’s coach.
Wen Chang’s initially passive approach to basketball at least partly derives from the experience of surviving the Cultural Revolution. “You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Because being someone could get you killed,” he says, offering an explanation that is echoed by Saul when he warns his athletes not to become involved with the Tiananmen Square protests.
With its daunting array of eras and basketball courts, The Great Leap can’t have been easy to produce. Yet director Zi Alikhan keeps the pace fast and incessant, echoing his director’s note, “This is a play about basketball, but it is also a basketball play. The game is reflected…in the rhythm, structure, language and how the characters move through space.”
It’s worth noting that the Asian American characters in The Great Leap consistently defy racist stereotypes. A lesser play might have portrayed the authoritative Connie, for instance, as a “tiger mom,” but her humanity and complexity are never in doubt, even when she is at odds with Manford.
The same is true of Manford, who contains zero traces of the “model minority” myth. There’s nothing deferential about him—driven by caffeine-fueled ambitions, he’s endearingly certain, as Saul would say, it is always his turn.
If The Great Leap has an emotional heart, it’s Wen Chang, who we essentially see as two people—a deferential young man and an accomplished, middle-aged apparatchik who reaches his limit and dares to defend the things that matter to him. It is his evolution that makes the play’s final image—which evokes one of the most important moments in Chinese history—feel genuine.
There is much more to The Great Leap. Manford’s motormouth lands him in hot water, Saul and Wen Chang clash and, of course, there is a basketball game. Yet the pleasures of the play go beyond the specifics of the plot. It’s not just a story—it’s an invitation to watch all the pieces of these living characters surface and fall into place.
SEE IT: The Great Leap plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, artistsrep.org. 2 pm Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, through Feb. 13.