‘The Great Leap’ digs deep into family histories

Among topics I’m interested in, “Chinese basketball” doesn’t typically rise anywhere near the top. So when I went to see “The Great Leap” at the Denver Center Theater Company recently, it was with some reservations.

To be sure, there’s some basketball-specific detail woven into the story, but nothing so technical that even a basketball doofus such as me couldn’t grasp. The more intriguing details lies with the three main characters: Manford, a Chinese-American teenager who wants to join an American team going to play in Beijing; Saul, coach of said team; and Wen Chang, coach of the Chinese team.

We meet Manford (Linden Tailor) when he sneaks into the practice court of the University of San Francisco basketball team and confronts coach Saul (Bob Ari) with an outrageous proposal: Take me along for that exhibition game in Beijing happening in just a few days. The five-foot-something Manford bolsters his demand by detailing the deficiencies of Saul’s starting lineup, player by player – then shooting 99 free throws in a row.

As the crusty coach, Ari plays Saul with the world-weary air of a guy who’s seen it all and who’s on thin ice due to his team’s recent poor performances. In fact, it’s been years since the team’s made the playoffs, much less won a championship. If there’s a shot at redemption by traveling to China to reprise a game his team played there 18 years ago, he’s got to take it.

Playwright Lauren Yee’s own father was a Chinese-American basketball player, and she says that, while “The Great Leap” isn’t his story, it might have been. She sets the action during a critical time in China’s history: 1989, when the events of Tiananmen Square shocked the world.

The action jumps between 1971, when Saul first visited China, to 1989 for the “rematch.” In the first visit, Saul befriends a clueless apparatchik who’s been tasked with coaching the equally clueless players. Joseph Steven Yang plays Wen Chang as a nervous stiff, channeling all of Saul’s American-ness to his players while cringing at the coarse language that doesn’t always jibe with the proper English he so meticulously learned in China. When a battered Saul returns 18 years later, the roles are reversed. Wen Chang has replaced his five-foot players with seven-footers, and he’s become an influential member of the party with his own plush apartment overlooking Tiananmen Square.

As the irrepressible Manford, Tailor plies the youthful area between the soulless comfort occupied by Wen Chang and the desperate tail-end of success manifested by Saul. Unbeknownst to the three men, there’s a deeper connection that will come out as the protests in the streets coincide with the arrival of the American team.

“The Great Leap” takes a little while to get off the ground, but by the time the second act starts to pick up steam, Yee has created a wealth of tension that starts driving into unknown territory. The fourth actor is Keiko Green, who plays Manford’s sister-like friend and also doubles as Manford’s recently deceased mother (also a fan of basketball) and Wen Chang’s love interest. As Connie, Green does a nice job working the seams between the other story threads, helping to color in detail and adding some levity along the way.

“The Great Leap” has plenty of humor to offset the more serious plot lines to come. With some fascinating reveals toward the end, this simmering plot rolls into a strong finale while taking some poetic license with some historical detail along the way. It’s an intriguing look into the events of the time through the eyes of characters who ultimately resist being merely swept along with the tide.