In Richard Greenberg’s 2003 play “Take Me Out,” about a gay baseball player’s coming out (and headed for a Broadway revival next year), America’s pastime is presented as “a perfect metaphor for hope in a democratic society.”
In Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” now playing at Steppenwolf, basketball — which has a well-rooted hundred-year history in China — is referred to as a reflection of the Communist ideal.
Welcome to the sports play genre, in which an athletic endeavor serves as plot driver and social context and metaphor at once.
Set in 1971 and 1989 — respectively the end of the Cultural Revolution and the time of Tiananmen Square — “The Great Leap” tells a personal and political tale of two basketball coaches, one American and one Chinese, and a player, a Chinese-American teen with a Chinese legacy and a relentless American spirit. It’s an engrossing and crafty play, with feisty dialogue and tightly structured turns. The pick and roll, where one player sets a screen for another, serves both as a topic of conversation and a clever metaphor for Yee’s method of mild misdirection, as the characters take turns at the forefront.
We start in 1989, when the teen, Manford (Glenn Obrero), shows up unannounced at a University of San Francisco basketball practice to convince — or badger — the longtime coach named Saul (Keith Kupferer) that he should join the team. Even before quick-witted arguments emerge over Manford’s height (he’s short) or his game (he’s really good), there’s the issue that the team’s season (a losing one) is already over. What Manford really wants, we discover, is to travel with the team to China, where they will be playing a “friendship” game against the University of Beijing.
Flash back to 1971, when Saul visited China and spent a few weeks coaching the Beijing University team as part of the ping pong diplomacy of the time. The first thing he notices at a practice is that the players never shoot; they just keep passing the ball. That might reflect the ideal of collective communism, but it also, according to Saul’s assigned translator Wen Chang (James Seol) and the play’s narrator, reflects the players’ fear of taking a shot and missing. In China under Mao, failing in the spotlight means career exile at best, consequences for one’s freedom or even one’s life at worst.
Wen Chang is now the Chinese team’s basketball coach, and the country is ruled by Deng Xiaoping. Student protests fill the streets, and caution informs both Wen Chang’s approach to basketball and his choices in life, which he begins to re-evaluate. James Seol’s performance manages to find the expressiveness in a character used to repressing what he’s feeling.
Saul, who tutored Wen Chang in the game but could not possibly be more different, sweats and swears profusely, relying on foul-mouthed trash talk as a strategy, including the claim in 1971 that no Chinese basketball team will ever beat an American team, a public pronouncement that has never been forgotten and may well come back to haunt him. Kupferer captures Saul’s growing recognition that his brashness is bringing him decreasing returns as a coach and outright failure in his personal life.
Manford possesses all the drive and skill to succeed, but seems held back by unresolved unknowns. In scenes with his cousin Connie (a strong Deanna Myers in a somewhat thankless role), Manford exposes his complex relationship with his mother, who has just passed away, and Obrero carefully reveals the layers of Manford’s motivation to play in Beijing.
Director Jesca Prudencio’s production comes off as confident and fast-moving but also somewhat sedate. The injections of the physical — mostly Obrero’s intense foot-heavy drills, a form of carefully controlled chaotic energy — are welcome but not especially integrated. Prudencio theatricalizes the aspects of gameplay sufficiently but not excitingly. Set designer Justin Humphres splits the audience in two in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs black box space, with basketball-court flooring in the middle, as if we were coming to a game. Although it works overall, it also problematically constrains the projections, which play a key role even at the compelling climax, to a sliver of space above the seating on each side.
If the production could be more stylistically involving, the play’s relevance could not be more immediate. Current street protests in Hong Kong make us realize both the stakes and realness of the suspense that existed with the Tiananmen protests, the mixture of hope and concern that exists before the tanks show up. And, here at home, we are perhaps getting our first glimpse of what fearful fealty looks like when a leader demands that even those reporting the weather demonstrate obedience to his message.