Coach Saul (Bob Ari) and Manford (Linden Tailor) go toe-to-toe on court and off. Photo credit: Seattle Rep
The first thing you’ll notice about “The Great Leap” is the killer soundtrack. You’ll find your seat and settle in for Seattle Rep’s new drama while grooving along to the hits of the '80s.
It’s fitting music and not just because most of the play is set in 1989. It’s an upbeat vibe that carries through the nearly two-hour production.
That's impressive given the serious material covered: China’s Cultural Revolution, parental abandonment, death. And, of course, basketball.
A 17-year-old Manford (played by an excellent Linden Tailor) wants one thing: to play on the University of San Francisco (USF) basketball team. More specifically, he wants a spot in the upcoming USF vs. Beijing University game. But first, he has to convince the jaded USF coach, Saul (Bob Ari).
Saul’s crusty exterior — including strings of expletives that would make a sailor blush (and which may take some explaining for younger kids) — belies a heart and soul dedicated to his team. Ari’s performance perfectly captures that tricky balance of salty and sweet.
Also stupendous: Connie (Keiko Green). Playing the difficult role of Manford’s slightly older but much wiser partner-in-crime, Green provides a dose of level-headed realness that balances out the sometimes outsized personalities onstage. Her costumes also made me (almost) wish for '80s fashion to make a comeback.
It’s reductive to say that this play is just about basketball. It’s not.
In between scenes of Manford and Saul’s on-court tension — stubbornness and passion tempered by a grudging mutual respect — we time-travel to 1971, Beijing. Here, we learn, is where Saul made a name for himself as the American liason in charge of teaching the Communist Party-sponsored Chinese team a thing or two about the game. His right-hand man: Wen Chang (a reserved but powerful Joseph Steven Yang).
At first befuddled by this boisterous American, Wen Chang eventually earns the position of the team's head coach. It’s his team who Saul’s will face in Beijing, 18 years later.
It’s reductive to say that this play is just about basketball. It’s not. Like any good plot that centers on a sport, the game is a metaphor for bigger happenings. The playwright, Lauren Yee, says as much in the program.
“Using basketball as a means to explore China-America relations turned out to be an incredibly apt metaphor,” she says. (The play’s title, by the by, is an allusion to China’s Great Leap Forward, which killed an estimated 45 million people and brought about much of the turmoil you’ll encounter when the USF team visits Beijing.)
It’s not all famine and anarchy, though. Yee has a sense of humor. She uses it to underscore the darker moments of her play. From well-timed dance parties to rapid-fire dialogue, “The Great Leap” doesn’t want you to sit by silently, stuck in what you think you know about China, basketball or family.
It wants you up and dancing, never standing still.
If you go...
When: “The Great Leap” plays March 23 to April 22
Where: Seattle Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St., Seattle
Ages: Best for high school and up (ages 13+) due to foul language and allusions to sex. That said, if you have a basketball fan who can handle some dirty words, take ‘em!
Length: Run time is three hours with one intermission.
Cost: $16 (student) up to $56
Parking: Try one of the nearby parking garages a few blocks from Seattle Center.
Tip: Upcoming nights include a visit from the playwright (March 31), a captioned performance (April 5) and a sign-interpreted show (April 14).