Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Sports and politics intersect in Asolo Rep's 'The Great Leap'

The tragedy of history collides with the game of basketball during China’s Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. There are no winners, just survivors.

Gregg Weiner, Glenn Obrero and Greg Watanabe star in The Great Leap. (Courtesy photo: Cliff Roles)
Gregg Weiner, Glenn Obrero and Greg Watanabe star in The Great Leap. (Courtesy photo: Cliff Roles)
  • Arts + Entertainment
  • Reviews
  • Share

Coach Roach here. Mr. Marty sprained his mouse-clicking hand, so I’m filling in today.

Cards on the table: It’s my first theater review.

No sweat. I’m used to color commentary for wicked-fast games in real time.

I already saw this play. I took notes. How hard could it be?

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” is Asolo Repertory Theatre’s current play.

It’s more like a sports movie, disguised as a sports play. It’s like Yee took all the sports movie tropes from “Rocky,” “Chariots of Fire” and “BASEketball,” plopped them into a blender and hit puree.

You've got the underdog athlete, the grizzled coach, the big game — you name it. Yee packs them all in. But sports movies also have rules. Yee quietly breaks them. (I don’t know how, but she gets away with it.)

Enough chatter. Let's go to the action on the court!

“Stage,” sorry.

The year: 1989. The place: San Francisco.

Coach Saul (Gregg Weiner) is prepping his college basketball team for a so-called “friendship” match in Beijing.

Manford (Glenn Obrero) a 17-year-old basketball prodigy, sneaks into the gym, gets in Saul’s face and states his ludicrous demands. This punk wants his shot! Seriously!

Manford (a basketball star in Chinatown only) wants to join Team America in its brutal basketball battle in China. Saul is naturally skeptical. (According to his best guess, Manford’s 5’5” at most.)

But the kid’s got heart. And he scores 99 out of 100 free throws, so what the hell. Saul says yes, and it’s game on.

Like I already said, Yee’s theater-type play has a sports movie vibe. You get the same rah-rah feeling, and it really pulls you in. But there’s more to this play than basketball. There’s history, duh. And three main characters all have backstories. Back in Saul’s glory days, he fired up the PRC’s embryonic basketball team. Manford’s Chinese-born mother was a powerhouse.

Who cares? Not you, right? Thanks to decades of sports movie conditioning, your mind is on the game, not personal histories.

You want to see Manford sink the winning basket already! You want Saul to have his comeback moment!

It all leads up to the big game in Beijing.

In a wacky coincidence, Tiananmen Square is just a shot away from the basketball court. The students are loudly marching and changing right outside. History’s about to go out of bounds. You know it. But your mind is still on the game. Because you want to see who wins. That’s the sports movie pay-off, right? That’s why you watch sports movies — or plays pretending to be sports movies.

Seasoned Director Vanessa Stalling brings her A-game to this play’s comeback miracle. “The Great Leap” was supposed to premiere at Asolo Rep in March 2020, but COVID-19 grounded it. Die-hard theater fans have waited since then to finally see it.

Do they like what they see now? Absolutely. A few sports-haters might not understand it all. But the whole crowd had a blast.

The benched actors have also been waiting. The current batch is psyched and hungry for a win.

Weiner’s Saul is a trash-talking mensch. He reminds me of me — I like him.

Glenn Obrero and Greg Watanabe help bring the play's balance between sports and history to life. (Courtesy photo: Cliff Roles)
Glenn Obrero and Greg Watanabe help bring the play's balance between sports and history to life. (Courtesy photo: Cliff Roles)

Obrero’s Manford is the high-strung, cocky hot shot he should be. Wen Chang (Greg Watanabe) comes off like a powerful bureaucrat. But he’s powerless. Chang’s life is a cushy prison with nice clothes and good food. The Chinese government pulled him out of a worse prison in the Cultural Revolution and made him a basketball coach. Life sentence. It wasn’t Chang’s idea, but he didn’t have a choice.

On the sidelines, Helen Joo Lee also scores as Connie, Manford’s supportive un-girlfriend. Or cousin.

Now let’s give a shout out to the costume and set designers.

Theresa Ham’s duds look like cheap clothes from Sears in 1971 or 1989. (Or the commie equivalent of Sears.) The basketball court set is a hybrid of matter and light. Joe Burke and Paul Deziel did the projections. Arnel Sancianco designed the physical set. The combined result is all constantly shifting, moving, and changing direction. Hypnotic. Kinda like the game of basketball.

Oh crap. Basketball …

Did I tell you people who wins yet? No, I didn’t. This critic stuff is harder than I thought.

So, anyway, the score is …

It’s USA: 79. PRC: 78. I think.

We win. You find out.

Like I should’ve said earlier, Yee doesn’t cheat you of the sports movie pay-off. (I still think she’s pulling a fast one.)

See, I figure the “big game” is a trick to make you watch all the heavy stuff. History, politics, characters from different culture, whatever. Yeah, I know what Yee’s up to. I figured it out early but I still kept watching her play. I enjoyed the show, so who cares?

I had fun. I even learned a lesson without even trying. Like a history lesson, maybe?

There are really two teams in the game of life or thrones or whatever. One team lets you be yourself and be real. The other team makes you dissolve your individuality like a sugar cube in the big collective soul. That applies to basketball teams and countries, too.

Something like that. It’s not my job, OK?

Lesson or not, this ain’t the History Channel. Yee’s fiction is rooted in historic fact. But it’s never realistic. Yeah, I know her dad played basketball. But Yee’s tale is mostly make-believe — and full of crazy coincidences and “Luke, I am your father”-type revelations. Fine by me. Like some dead writer once said, “The best storytellers never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Yee’s one of the best. A real hard-charger. And puny facts don’t slow her down.

“The Great Leap” is not what really happened, OK? But it’s a window into what did.

Yee tells a really good story. The reality behind the playwright’s fiction is really hard to take.

The People’s Republic of China won. The students lost.

We all know the score.



Latest News