“The Great Leap” at the Guthrie is about More Than Basketball

The Great Leap is full of banter you’ll want to hear again and characters you want to root for

Lee Sellars (left) and Leah Anderson in "The Great Leap" at the Guthrie. Photo by Dan Norman
Lee Sellars and Leah Anderson in the Guthrie’s production of The Great Leap.

Photo by Dan Norman

Our first introduction to Manford Lum (played by Lawrence Kao) is an explosion of words, half-tumbling out of his mouth into a barrage of flipped around cliches, single-minded determination, and somehow likable bravado that’s far bigger than his less-than-six-foot height. He’s trying to persuade University of San Francisco basketball coach Saul (a fantastic Lee Sellars) to put him on the team so he can play in the U.S. v. Beijing exhibition basketball game, and he is definitely annoying in his attempts.

Still, you end up rooting for him. Perhaps it’s because he’s a 17-year-old guy from Chinatown trying to haphazardly follow his dream to play basketball. Or, perhaps it’s because Kao projects both the little brother who doesn’t know when to quit and the underdog you hope will never quit.

In Lauren Yee’s high-energy play The Great Leap, which plays at the Guthrie through Feb. 10, Saul is bringing his basketball team to play against Beijing University in a “friendly” exhibition game. The year is 1989 now—you’ll get the feel from sound designer Sarah Pickett’s hip hop beat—and the last time Saul was there was 1971. Back then, he had been brought over to mentor China’s basketball team because, as Chinese basketball coach Wen Chang (Kurt Kwan) says, basketball teaches teamwork, part of the Communist Party’s values. And Mao Zedong likes it.

Manford wants in on the historic game although it is only a month away and he’s too young. Saul is tough convince, but you really can’t expect less from a Bronxer with an armor made up of cuss-filled trash talk and a “way of the world” mindset. Even if Manford wins over Saul, he has to convince his pseudo big sister Connie (Leah Anderson) that it’s a good idea, too.

And then there is Wen Chang, the man whose life changed when he was selected to be Saul’s interpreter in China all those years ago. Saul thinks he knows Wen Chang from their courtside talks, but he should’ve paid attention when Wen Chang said that in 18 years, he plans on being a completely different person.

The Great Leap gets its plentiful laughs from piled on banter, lost-in-translation moments, and wry remarks, but what really struck me were all of Wen Chang’s illuminating asides as he talked about his relationship with Saul and China’s political environment. Kwan led us through them with ease, and as the second act slowed down the pace more, his quick comments unfurled into more lyrical thoughts without any disconnect despite the evolving tone.

Part of that play shift was the script, but at least for me, the premise of visiting Beijing in June 1989 made me start anticipating what could happen in the backyard of Tiananmen Square. As the play reaches its climax, there are some plot points that are a bit too neatly bow-tied and convenient, but how the actors react (under Desdemona Chiang’s direction) make it as believable as it can be.

As anyone who has seen the advertising can tell you, “This play is (and isn’t) about basketball.” It’s not an incorrect statement. The Great Leap’s motifs include growing up, chasing a dream, and finding out whom you came from, and it largely succeeds in making those thoughts universal instead of over-used. If you can’t relate to Manford’s all-or-nothing attitude, you find yourself wanting to—you want to have the confidence to take your turn, even if all you’re going on is hope that it’s the right time to do so.