Glenn Obrero as Manford Lum Photo Credit: Steppenwolf Theatre


Review of The Great Leap by Lauren Yee

Basketball. A fast-paced exhibition of speed, agility, athleticism, and precision. It’s a game of skill and strategy, where one star’s brilliance can dictate the outcome just as effectively as a synchronized team of shoot-and-score players.

It was a game embraced by Chairman Mao Zedong for its cohesive power as a means to build unity within his military. During the post “Great Leap” and Cultural Revolution eras leading up to the the infamous Tiananmen Square protests, basketball served as an unlikely bridge between China and the U.S. amidst mass political turmoil and violent civil unrest. This is the backdrop of playwright, Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap.

Her work is an homage to the transcontinentally beloved sport, as well as to her father, Larry Yee, who as a 6’1” teenager, ruled the playground courts of San Francisco Chinatown. More importantly, Yee’s play breathes life into the contradicting philosophies of Eastern and Western mindsets…the competitive “take the shot”, “find and create your space” mentality of Western thinking versus the engrained Chinese discipline denouncing individual advancement by “not waiting your turn” and “taking up too much space”.

Just four actors masterfully appear in Steppenwolf Theater’s production of The Great Leap, skillfully and wonderfully directed by Jesca Prudencio. Each actor personifies the cultural differences, political mantra, and familial conflicts that plague the characters and the people then and now. Through these four characters, Yee delves into the inherent conflict of self versus whole, and demonstrates that exerting one’s unique independence was never an option and would end ultimately in dire consequences.

The play begins in San Francisco, March 1989, with 17 year-old, high-school street-baller, Manford Lum (played by Glenn Obrero). In the opening scene, Manford adeptly slick-talks his case to the ornery and “rough-around-the-edges” USF basketball Coach Saul (played by Keith Kupferer). Manford displays his quick feet and even quicker wit to ultimately secure a spot on Saul’s team traveling to Beijing for the rematch of the “Friendship Games”. Obrero’s performance is vibrant and energetic. Each argument, each conviction woven skillfully between scenes as he convinces the audience that the one small stage (brilliantly lit and captivatingly convincing) is both a basketball court where he reigns supreme, as well as Tiananmen Square, where he is a foreigner lost in a sea of protesting faces that look like his yet offer no sign of self recognition.

While we are kept in the dark as to Manford’s resolute need and desire to partake in the Beijing games, Manford’s cousin, Connie (beautifully played by Deanna Myers) sounds off as the steady voice that keeps the impulsive and often petulant Manford in line. More importantly, Connie is fundamental in filling in the historical gaps of the political climate in late 1980s China. Her role is protectively parental, yet contemporary and empathetic as she stands behind her cousin’s ambition and passion for the game, as well as his need for self identification. Myers portrays Connie’s intellect and understanding, as she vigilantly awaits news of Manford’s safe arrival in Beijing and comforts him amidst his soul-searching journey, which we learn is a larger part of his need to travel to his native country.

The play then rewinds back eighteen years earlier to June 1971, with a crass and profanity-laden Coach Saul traveling to Beijing to play against the Chinese team in the first exhibition “Friendship Game”.  Kupferer is spot-on in portraying the loud, politically-incorrect and culturally insensitive American coach. As the play progresses, however, we see the other facets of his character. Saul’s love of the game, his need to preserve his waning significance both professional and personal, as well as his steadfast dedication to his players are seen and felt.

During that visit, Saul meets his translator, the meticulously obedient and cultural polar opposite, Wen Chang (powerfully played by James Seol). Seol exquisitely exemplifies the strict and unwaveringly compliant member of the Communist Party. Wen Chang’s deliberate pronunciation and grammatically perfect mastery of the English language allows his words to resonate a certain stoic yet passionately nationalistic tone throughout his delivery. Through his character, we understand the cultural and political significance behind the deeply embedded idea that “Growing up, you did not want to be someone. You wanted to be the person three persons behind someone, because being someone could get you killed.”  

Despite their seemingly contradicting demeanor and personalities, an unlikely camaraderie and respect are born between the two characters. Through the juxtaposition of the divergent nuances between the Chinese and the American ways of basketball, the audience is presented with a deeper revelation of the cultural differences and plights that seem to transcend continents and generations.

The Chinese team plays with a certain trepidation, so as not to allow any individualism to shine brighter than the “all for the greater good” team mentality. Whereas American basketball is a game of “take your shot”, “take back what’s yours”, and “it’s always your turn”, the Chinese way of play is to stand back, “shoot but don’t miss”, pass for the collective good of the team, and always “wait your turn”. In China, there is no place for individual success or personal glory in that one’s achievement is but a cumulative effort towards a win for the collective mass.

As the play jumps forward again to the Beijing Friendship game in the summer of 1989, we see the true aftermath of the cross-cultural, cross-generational dichotomy felt during a time when  political tensions were high and personal identity obscured and obsolete. Through Wen Chang and Manford Lum’s narratives, we are acutely reminded that turmoil and unrest were not limited solely to the political realm but rather infiltrated to the emotional and corporal core of generations to come.

The Great Leap enters its final weekend of production through October 20, 2019.

For tickets or more information, call 312.335.1650 or visit

Oct 5, 2019

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