Jeffrey Lo has been dreaming about staging Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap since before the play was even published.
“I watched a stage reading of an early draft maybe four or so years ago in San Francisco, while she was still revising and editing it,” Lo says. “For me, as an Asian American director, and a huge fan of basketball, my eyes were getting bigger and bigger as it went, and I thought, I was meant to direct this play.”
The Great Leap tells the story of Manford Lum, a young point guard from San Francisco’s Chinatown who is—in his own words—relentless, an unstoppable force running the court like an impala and shooting 100 free throws a night. When Lum learns that the USF basketball team is playing an exhibition game in Beijing, he makes it his life’s purpose to join the team. Only partway through the story do audiences learn why this particular game is so important to him.
The character of Lum is based on the playwright’s father, and the play’s central conflict on a real event: his experience traveling to China in the 1980s to play an exhibition game on a team of players from San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“They went to China to play a game against a team of these 7-foot monsters, really. 7-foot basketball players who just dominated her father and his teammates,” Lo says. In Yee’s play, however, the game takes on a significance much greater than simply getting dunked on in a foreign country.
“The story became not just about a team traveling from the US to Beijing to play a friendly basketball game, but about finding one’s self through family and through political challenges,” Lo says.
The Great Leap is set in 1989, against a backdrop of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. As the students struggle with their government outside, Lum’s struggle plays out on the basketball court—a struggle mirrored in Wen Chang, the coach of the Chinese team, who holds a secret he’s been steadfastly guarding almost twenty years. As the game races towards the buzzer, both men confront their destinies.
Rounding out the play’s cast of characters is Connie, Lum’s cousin, and the downtrodden American coach Saul, who needs a win more than anything. With only four characters, Yee’s expression of the critical basketball game is striking.
“There are portions of this play that just feel like a poem, Lauren’s language is so beautiful,” Lo says. He describes the sections dedicated to the game itself as moving like “a group poem,” the frenetic pace of the basketball game playing out in round-robin dialogue that conjures “the energy of the game, the way it moves.”
At San Jose Stage, The Great Leap plays out on a miniature hardwood which curves along the wall at the halfcourt line before exploding into a spray of individual planks. In both look and feel, the San Jose production differs significantly from previous ones, like the BD Wong directed LA production from 2019.
“Lauren’s script is not super explicit,” Lo says. “The dialogue says what happens for the most part, but it doesn’t have stage directions to tell you what you should be doing. That’s partly why I was so excited. I’ve had a plethora of ideas of how to convey this to the audience.”
In the 2019-20 season, Lauren Yee was the second most produced playwright in America, with a total of 19 productions staged. Lo’s relationship with her, however, is a little more personal than most.
“I was working on a production of The Language Archivist by Julia Cho at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and someone said this new playwright from UCSD was coming to observe and could someone pick her up at the airport.”
Lo volunteered. The playwright, it turned out, was Yee, and the two struck up a friendship. “We’ve stayed in touch ever since,” he says.
After more than a year and a half off the stage, Lo and company have been thrilled to be back doing what they do best—especially opening with a play that feels so close to their hearts.
“Basketball to me is just poetry in motion,” Lo says. “To me, it’s one of the most—if not the—most beautiful team sports we have.”
The Great Leap
Wed-Sun, Various Times, $41+
San Jose Stage, San Jose