The folks who want to keep politics out of sports are often clueless and have no idea that that’s never been the case. Calling it a “friendly” or an “exhibition” does nothing to calm those waters.
Whether it was two fists at the 1968 Olympic games that exploded into a movement for justice and racial equality, a Black man taking a knee on a football field to protest systemic racism in law enforcement, or even seeing Fidel Castro stand for the United States national anthem in 1999 before an exhibition baseball game in Cuba, sports and politics often make for essential bedfellows. The word exhibition means nothing once athletes step between the lines. Hell, it was an exhibition and Apollo Creed still got killed.
In San Jose Stage’s production of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, directed smoothly by Jeffrey Lo, there is a critical component that the terrific production brings forth – the dynamic of basketball’s zealous role in China and how that component informs a college team more than 7,000 miles away . The National Basketball Association has made outreach in China a huge priority, a move which has also brought forth some stinging criticism. And that ain’t changing – as recently as 2019, China accounted for more than 10 percent of the NBA’s global revenue.
Manford (James Aaron Oh) hears about an exhibition that hapless Coach Saul (Tim Kniffin) is putting together to play in China, a place where the coach believes he is revered. It was the coach’s guidance that changed basketball in China in 1971, or so he believes – basketball has always been a constant there. The way Manford takes down ballers in Oakland is the same way he takes down the coach, getting a coveted spot on the trip.
Not everyone thinks this is a great idea. Manford’s caretaker Connie (Monica Ho) understands that a young Chinese American is no match for the competition level of Chinese players but ultimately relents to Manford’s unshakeable confidence.
The bridge between the two countries is the low-level communist translator Wen Chang (Alex Hsu), who understands basketball’s grip on China. He is completely befuddled by the ugliness of American coaching, which includes cursing constantly and something called “suicides” in the practice regimen.
Ultimately, two countries and basketball collide into an explosive commentary on race, politics and sport.
It is a sly choice that the team in the center of the narrative is the University of San Francisco, which boasts legends such as Bill Cartwright, Bill Russell, KC Jones and Chinatown legend Willie “Woo Woo” Wong. Yet USF also has another side – their more recent futile existence. From 1982’s voluntary suspension that lasted three years, to a carousel of coaches and general fan apathy in subsequent years, the Dons are a strong, metaphoric subject of the play. Even Coach Saul makes one recall the curiosity that was Eddie Sutton, who came to San Francisco at 71 years of age, told the team they sucked ass daily, then drowned his sorrows with In ‘n’ Out.
Lo, a self-described basketball junkie, puts the action on a slick and shiny set designed by Christopher Fitzer, which feels bigger than most sets that fit into San Jose Stage’s intimate space. His movement through the piece is the driver, coordinating four characters that each navigate the stage in very specific pacing styles.
Oh is a ball of energy, capturing the can-do spirit of a 17-year-old who goes around with something to prove, using the unlocked player’s entrance at will to access USF’s gym. His cousin by choice, portrayed by the solid Ho, is a great foil that tempers Manford’s youthful exuberance. And Coach Saul, epitomizing many college and professional coaches who often sacrifice everything for a taste of athletic validation, is at an age where asking if his life was worth it is commonplace.
But make no mistake, the show’s most powerful arc belongs to Wen Chang. In the hands of Hsu, the portrayal is succulent. Hsu’s Wen Chang is a certain kind of everyman, one who has the most work to do. Wen Chang holds secrets, reveals universe, questions his own role in China’s zeitgeist of the late 1980s and ultimately sets forth to change the world. A life of invisibility leads to an engagement in one of the greatest civilian disruptions ever, reflected in a jarring, tear-jerking tableau in the waning moments of the play, making good use of Fitzer’s projection design.
Lo’s direction is assisted mightily by Yee’s stellar structure – the most intricate setups of act one lead to act two’s satisfying payoffs. The show’s title reflects the duality of the play. The Great Leap Forward was not only a campaign that infamously tried to move China’s economy into a new era, but also led to widespread famine throughout the nation. Yet a great leap can be known through soaring and dunking – a power move with momentum-shaking implications. Both issues, leading to the big game being played as Tiananmen Square raged in 1989, come to a head mightily.
Basketball in The Great Leap is a fantastic parallel for each narrative. There is also an incredible reverence that reflects the importance of hoops in Chinese communities all over the world. Anyone who set foot in Oracle arena in 2010 certainly remembers the roof-shaking adoration for Jeremy Lin when he came in for the Golden State Warriors during garbage time. That says nothing of his unbelievable run with the New York Knicks in 2012. And of course, one of the Bay Area’s most iconic outdoor courts sits right in Chinatown.
You can call it an exhibition, you can call it a friendly, but whatever you call it, The Great Leap is a reminder that a game is just a game.
That is, until it’s not.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents The Great Leap
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Jeffrey Lo
The Word: A well-constructed script sets up act one’s alley oop, and act two’s power jam finish. Hsu steals scenes throughout the show.
Running time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First St. San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $41 – $60
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit https://www.thestage.org/