Review: “The Great Leap” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

Glenn Obrero/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

“The Great Leap” begins with a cool beam of light outlining a basketball court. It ends with a flash that implies destruction and sacrifice. To understand all the events that lead from that first image to the last, one must witness how cultural clashes and expectations complicate seemingly simple choices, like when to take a shot during a basketball game. Lauren Yee’s propulsive script, now playing upstairs at the Steppenwolf Theatre, invites discussion not just about who gets to excel in sports, but who gets to excel in our interconnected, globalized society.

The 1989-set story is narrated by Wen Chang (James Seol), though he patiently waits to appear until the second scene of the play, following his interpretation that on the court everyone takes turns. He coaches for the University of Beijing basketball team, where he has worked hard to recruit “tall trees” to play for him. He never wanted the job or the spotlight that ensured the government is always watching his successes and failures. But he was handed the gig from Saul (Keith Kupferer), a San Francisco university coach who taught him the game during a diplomatic visit to China in 1971. Of course, being an American, Saul also felt the need to impart wisdom about trash talk, flirting, and chasing what you want without thinking of the consequences. Though he believes “a Chinese team will never beat an American team,” Saul is in dire straits circa 1989. He needs a win to keep his coaching job, and he’s willing to host a friendly rematch with Beijing in order to make that happen. Enter Manford (Glenn Obrero), a relentless teenage phenom who wants to be the best point guard around, not just the most impressive baller in Chinatown. These three characters are set on a collision course as East meets West, with surprising revelations in store.

Yee’s work always feels personal, even as she admits in a program interview that this story is not her basketball player father’s, but a story reminiscent of her father’s. Basketball serves as a placeholder for political tension between the United States and China here, but we also see the game’s practical outcomes in each character’s story. After all, the people obsessed with and beguiled by the game are playing for much higher stakes than points. Yet the American characters don’t understand that. “It’s always your turn,” Saul tells Wen Chang. He has no idea what a bold statement that is to make when students are demanding more from their government, only to be greeted with tanks. He only sees himself as a personal and professional guide, as a friend offering friendly advice. For Wen Chang, because of where he comes from, friendly advice cannot be refused. And his inability to communicate that to anyone but the audience is what may doom him in the rematch. Though Yee’s conclusion doesn’t quite justify the heights it reaches, the journey to Wen Chang’s “turn” is engrossing and heartbreaking.

James Seol and Keith Kupferer/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Jessica Prudencio cleverly finds a way to make bring basketball into this world through Obrero’s physicality. Obrero is not only an insistent and effortless motor mouth as Manford, he whirls his way around Justin Humphres’ impressive courtside set with lightning speed. One notices upon entering the space that there are no basketball hoops present in the paint. But there is no need for such realism in this cross-continental play. Obrero’s free throws are poetic oopsie daisies that involve him catching the ball as he throws it. He doesn’t even need a basketball to show us how well he moves across the court, passing an invisible ball between his legs to mystify unseen opponents. In “The Great Leap,” basketball becomes a competition against one’s self, a battle between who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Seol’s stillness brands him as quietly desperate, proper in all things because that is what his government demands of him. We sympathize, even as we yearn for the electric charge brought by those who refuse to stand still.

While Humphres’ alley style set makes us spectators at a game, Keith Parham’s lights and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design transport us somewhere more personal, into the minds and hearts of each person holding the court at any given moment. Cool projection beams map out where Manford is going to travel. What is a simple path for a young man’s future is much more complex when it comes to his coach and his opponent. Parham’s harsh lights shrink down or flood the stage in the 1971 sequences, shining so bright at times, it is even impossible for the audience to see what’s coming.

And that’s fitting for a show about unintended and unforeseen consequences. Basketball may be a poetic game with clear rules, but its power comes from how players move the ball forward. In Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” taking steps may be easy or it may be hard, but it is never less than a thrilling leap into the unknown.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Basketball means cultural clashes and introspection in this thrilling drama.

Show: “The Great Leap”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: The Upstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted)