Foreground: Manny Fernandes (left) and Edward Chen in "The Great Leap." Karli Cadel Photography
As was demonstrated in La Jolla Playhouse's production last fall of Lauren Yee's "Cambodian Rock Band," the extraordinarily gifted playwright, an MFA graduate of UCSD, possesses the ability to confront intricate political issues by humanizing in startling and intimate ways those in their sphere of influence. Her characters are genuine and vulnerable, her dialogue sharp and incisive.
Yee's "The Great Leap" was first heard locally two years ago in a Powers New Voices Festival reading at the Old Globe. It premiered shortly after at the Ricketson Theatre in Denver and later in 2018 appeared Off Broadway. Its arrival at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is noteworthy and the production itself, it turns out, reason for celebration. "The Great Leap" is a nuanced and cerebral work that at Cygnet under Rob Lutfy's direction receives an exquisite staging.
The play's title is a reference to the so-called "Great Leap Forward," the People's Republic of China's socioeconomic campaign to embed a Communist society in the late '50s/early '60s. Yee's fictional story, however, begins in 1971 when a visiting American college basketball coach boasts that no Chinese team would ever beat one from the USA. This hubris has ridden the passage of time to 1989, the year of the play's principal setting (and a benchmark in China's recent history), when that same coach (Manny Fernandes) is invited to return to China with his struggling (an 8-20 won/less record) University of San Francisco basketball team to play a squad from the University of Beijing. Enter 17-year-old Manford Lum (Scott Keiji Takeda), a Chinatown hoops legend who begs coach Saul to add him to his roster. The third key figure is Wen Chang (Edward Chen), whose friendship Saul cultivated while visiting China the first time and who at his pushy-American urging became a basketball coach himself. He is the coach of the team that Saul's boys will confront.
What secrets await revealing both on American and Chinese soil are central to the soul and backbone of "The Great Leap," which it should be said is only nominally about basketball (though the game carries the story and furnishes metaphorical reminders throughout its telling). Without giving away more than I should, "The Great Leap" is about family, about personal accountability and seizing opportunities, about how loving from afar is sometimes the best that one can do, and about courage. The last 10 minutes of the play will -- and should -- leave you breathless.
Chen is remarkable as the play's most conflicted character, a man in whom to some extent all the story's internal strife resides. Fernandes, who is a Cygnet resident artist, gets the plum job of spewing coach-speak profanity, and his green-and-gold USF garb gives him the appearance of a gruff but likable toon. The passion and impatience of youth are personified ably in Takeda's Manford, slight but lionhearted.
"The Great Leap" literally plays out on a basketball court of a stage designed by Yi-Chien Lee. Projections by Blake McCarty carry us back and forth in time, from here to there in history, from a Bay Area gym to Tiananmen Square.
The first unmissable production of 2020 on San Diego stages, "The Great Leap" is urgent, profoundly felt theater.
"The Great Leap" runs through Feb. 16 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.