By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, currently debuting at the Seattle Repertory Theater, is a classic case of a well-meaning story biting off more than it can chew. It is a noble attempt to memorialize the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and an interesting attempt to showcase a little-known basketball friendship game that took place at the same time between the United States and China. The parallel plotlines are set up competently in the beginning, and the characters are well defined. Yet, attempts to tie everything together in the second act lead to everything falling apart. The play just does not have the unifying thread that it needs. Instead, it has a loose cannon.
The loose cannon in the play is the main character, Manford. Well, we think he is the main character. About 70 percent of the way through, we start to think the Chinese coach, Wen Chang, is the main character — and it is Wen Chang who sends us off at the end in a manner most emphatic. It’s not a good sign when the audience isn’t sure who the main character is — or when they thought they knew — and suddenly did not. It’s one thing to divide the play in half, perhaps, as some stories do, and tell one character’s story in the first half, and the other character’s story in the second half — but this is not what happens. Instead, the plot starts leaning towards Wen Chang, yet not conspicuously enough to realize he’s taking over until the end. This could be an intriguing effect if it weren’t combined with so many other surprises.
The loose cannon has a surprise motivation. People fool us. We think they want one thing and all along they wanted something else. People, and protagonists, have ulterior motives. The trouble with The Great Leap is that Manford tries to hang onto two motivations — the one he starts with, and of which we are thoroughly convinced: that he wants to play basketball; and the one he surprises us with, of wanting to resolve long-lost questions about his birth by taking advantage of a trip to China, to play basketball. Which motivation is it?
Does he want to play basketball or does he want to confront his past? Is it possible to do both at once? Sure!
Yet in this case, as we will discuss in a moment, it’s not possible without an element of fantasy that is not present, and which would be required for Manford to achieve these dual goals. The two motivations, and thus the plotline that supports them, are convenient, but don’t work.
The loose cannon defies reality and the Chinese authorities. It’s a tribute to the solid storytelling of the first half of the play, when Manford turns up AWOL from practice in the second half, we are stunned. Where is he?
The entire first act centers on Manford’s relentless efforts to get onto the team that is going to China, and now he’s gone? This is where the plot gets reminiscent of Forrest Gump, yet it’s too unexpected — and no precedent has been set — for the audience to quite go along. Manford simply appears in opportune places at opportune times in order to move the plot forward. And he does so in the middle of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. There’s a running joke that Manford gets into places by the back or service door. It’s a funny joke, yet it’s just not possible for an American wearing a flamboyant U.S. team uniform, to go wherever he needs to go in that time and place. No matter which door he uses.
The loose cannon is out of context. Every other character in the play is very much of their time. They walk and talk and dress the parts. All of them. And this is a great asset. Unfortunately, Manford throws off the mojo of the team by being presented in a way that was probably unlikely for a young Chinese American of the 1980s. In the question and answer period after the play, an audience member pointed out that Manford was extremely disrespectful to his elders, and that this did not seem realistic for the time (maybe not even for today’s time).
The answer given was that the intention had been to concentrate on Manford’s other character traits, such as his spunkiness and determination. Again, this could be achieved if an element of fantasy were entered into the storyline. There are many over-the-top, fun elements of the play, such as the bold black and white backdrops and intense stops and starts to the action. It is also very humorous. If these elements were further exaggerated, the play’s weaknesses could become strengths. If the audience wasn’t so tied to believing — seeped in historical information from the get-go and gobbling up factual details — and instead was allowed to suspend its disbelief entirely and free float like a time traveler, we might have all been able to achieve that great leap. Make Manford completely out of his time. Make him someone who can go wherever he wants during a military crackdown in Communist China. Or make him and his story completely real.
The Great Leap is two stories attempting to be one. It’s a story about Tiananmen. And it’s a story about basketball. Both stories are excellent on their own. Both stories merit being told. The events at Tiananmen Square in particular deserve a place on the stage in this day and age when many people have forgotten about what happened there, or have never heard of it. Unfortunately, the two stories do not mesh convincingly, but are rather a convenient construct put together with the best of intentions that is blown apart by the loose cannon of a main character that is neither believable, nor fantastically unbelievable!
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.