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Intergenerational trauma. Found family. Extremely creative insults. What’s not to like? The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of “The Great Leap,” which ran from Feb. 24 to March 19, brings all of these and more to the basketball court. The play, written by Lauren Yee and directed by Michael Hisamoto, is ultimately a story about how to take control of your own narrative, which asks: What is it like to spend your whole life standing still, and how do you learn to move?
Set in San Francisco in 1989, “The Great Leap” follows Manford Lum, a Chinese American basketball player with a chip on his shoulder; Saul, his cynical white coach; and Wen Chang, a Chinese national coach with a hidden past. Manford manages to get himself a spot on an American basketball team to play a “friendship” game in Beijing, but finds himself caught up in his family history and questioning what it means to be both Chinese and American.
Yee’s script is the backbone of the production, peppered with salaciously out-of-pocket wordplay and buoyant moments of camaraderie. The dialogue is fresh and alive; characters roast each other with delightful wit, only to turn around and say something so sincere it hurts. Yee also pokes fun at the audience's preconceived notions about the sanctity of religion and politics in China — for example, the show is peppered with tongue-in-cheek references to Mao Zedong. A Chinese character will say, seriously, “To quote an old Chinese proverb…” Pause, then finish, “What bullshit!”
Such unexpected turns aren’t just funny; they also make the play feel self-aware of the expectation placed on it — not just to entertain, but to educate. Perhaps in another play, a character would seriously explain an old Chinese proverb to an audience waiting to be praised for watching something educational. However, Yee instead chooses to explore the ideological differences between the two countries, and what it means to be shaped by both, in a funny, nuanced, and ultimately heartbreaking way.
The performances are all strong, with each actor bringing playfulness, nuance, and gravity. But Gary Thomas Ng stands out, bringing a quiet, soft-spoken, yet powerful quality to Wen Chang — a character whose anger and despair are always simmering beneath the surface. These two emotions are hidden so well that the audience almost forgets they are there, until the moments when Ng tactfully brings them out.
While portrayals of Asian masculinity as soft and “feminine” have historically been criticized for being racist and orientalist, Ng’s portrayal of a softer, gentler, yet still forceful masculinity is a subtle, yet important moment for Asian male representation. In contrast to Saul, the brash, in-your-face, hyper-masculine American male coach who’s always yelling or cursing at someone, Ng’s character shows that Asian men don’t have to prove their masculinity by acting like white men. In a story where proving your toughness is inextricably tied to proving your worth as a father or son, this kind of portrayal onstage allows for more expansiveness around what Asian masculinity can look like.
The production’s set design, lighting choices, and the layout of the space heighten the emotions of the play. Seats are arranged against three of the four sides of the stage, making the theater feel more like a stadium than a traditional proscenium. Manford says he wants to “sit courtside” for a close view of history being made. Due to this seating arrangement, the audience feels like they are doing exactly that. The brick walls and wooden floors are designed to make the space feel like a run-down gym: stifling, claustrophobic, familiar. The space reflects Manford’s state of mind — he’s stuck in his hometown and wants to get out, yet always finds himself returning to the basketball court, whether in San Francisco or Beijing.
These design elements come together in a dramatic, almost ethereal flourish at the play’s close. Wen Chang is sitting alone in his sterile apartment in Beijing, looking down on the Tiananmen Square protests. The play’s set lives in the land of realism — real gym benches, real basketballs, hyper-realistic brick walls and windows. However, as Wen Chang prepares to leave his apartment, enter the protests, and face violence and certain death, a door in the middle of the stage swings open — a door that’s been there the whole time, but has never been opened. Golden light glows within it — it’s impossible to tell where it leads. If it even ends, or just keeps going. In a play grounded in the smack of a ball hitting the floor, we feel, for a second, weightless. For a moment, the curtain lifts, and we glimpse the unknown and the unearthly. And then the lights go out.
—Staff writer Sophie H. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
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