By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Prior to writing her latest play, “The Great Leap,” Lauren Yee was not a huge basketball fan, although she knew of Linsanity.
“I feel like everyone is a big fan of Jeremy Lin,” said the Bay Area native. “Basketball was something I really didn’t understand even though my father played,” admits Yee.
Her father, who stands at 6-feet-1 and played recreationally as a youth, was part of a contingent for a club team that toured China. Thus, the backdrop for which “The Great Leap” is set — inspired by her father’s past play on the court and his visit to China.
Yee’s father toured China in 1981. But Yee’s play starts in 1989, which was “an interesting and complicated point in Chinese history,” Yee points out, “and a good point at which to start.”
“The Great Leap” is about an American college basketball team traveling to Beijing for an exhibition game in 1989. The drama builds on and off the court, as an American coach deals with relevance within the sport. In addition, a Chinese coach must decide his role in the changing country, while a Chinese American player visiting the country seeks a lost connection. The political atmosphere in China was tense as rapid economic development and social changes clashed with old world ideas.
The culmination of this occurred with student-led protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre in which the government forcibly suppressed the uprising, and troops fired on demonstrators leading to civilian deaths.
Yee began her research on this play with oral history from her father. From there, Yee envisioned what it was like with the student protests in Tiananmen Square but know so little about a complicated chapter in China’s history.
Yee completed “The Great Leap” in two years, which is remarkable for completing a play. “Two years is quick.”
Yee knew writing was what she wanted to do. “When I was very young, I wanted to be a writer,” recalled Yee. “I knew it. I found theater, and playwrighting seemed like the best of writing and being with other people.”
Yee does not subscribe to the belief that Asian families discourage their children from the arts in favor of more lucrative jobs.
“I think it’s largely about immigrant families wanting the best for their kids.” Yee added, “I think my parents were extremely supportive. They are not ‘theater people’ but come to see my shows.”
Although Yee’s latest play relates to China, she does not believe her body of work demands her to address Asian or Asian American characters.
“It’s 50/50 in terms of stories about culture and ethnicity as that is important and a significant part of my identity.” Still, she believes in diversity when it comes to her plays. “I feel like even when it is not ethnically specific, it’s still important to think of who you are hiring and casting.”
“One of the things I get to do is write great roles for Asian American actors. It is important and integral.”
Yee was born and raised in San Francisco, but currently lives in New York City. She received her bachelor’s degree from Yale University and went on to the University of California, San Diego, where she obtained a Master in Fine Arts in playwrighting and studied under Naomi Iizuka.
Her first professionally produced play was 2010’s “Ching Chong Chinaman,” a play about a Chinese American immigrant family.
She has received many distinguished fellowships including the Kesselring Prize in 2017. It is awarded to emerging playwrights since 1980 and comes with $25,000 and a two-week residence at the National Arts Club. Her play, “In a Word,” about a child’s disappearance which haunts a mother, received critical acclaim as an off-Broadway play this past summer. It earned the Francesca Primus Prize for an outstanding play by an emerging female playwright. Yee received $10,000 and was recognized by the American Theatre Critics Association.
“The Great Leap,” debuts at the Seattle Repertory Theatre on March 23 and runs through April 22. For more information, visit seattlerep.org.
For more on Lauren Yee, visit laurenyee.com.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.