Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Playwright Lauren Yee took her inspiration from the 1971 ping-pong tournament that brought U.S. athletes to the People's Republic of China at a time before the two nations had established diplomatic relations. Her story toggles between two time periods, a 1971 college basketball game in Beijing between Chinese and American teams and the American coach's inspiration for a rematch in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests.
The characters are Manford (Randy Nguyen Ta, cocky and lovable), U.S.-born son of a Chinese mother, who lives for basketball and demonstrates talent despite being less than six feet tall; Saul (Eric Hissom, hilariously foul-mouthed), the crotchety coach who led the 1971 team and organized the 1989 match; Wen Chang (Grant Chang, taciturn and wary), who learned the rules of basketball when he served as Saul's translator during the 1971 Chinese match and is now a coach himself; and Connie (Lois Shih, intelligent and outspoken), who's been watching out for Manford since his mother's death. Their stories intertwine and eventually collide.
Grant Chang has perhaps the toughest role as his character is comparatively quiet, a man who has kept his head down and followed the rules at a time when "being someone could get you killed." As guided by Jennifer Chang, he subtly reveals the depths bubbling under his placid surface.
The physical production bursts with innovative uses of technology. Tony Cisek's scenic design, on a floor marked to resemble the basket area of a basketball court, features a turntable that allows for shifting perspectives. Sliding panels form a succession of shapes on which Minjoo Kim's lighting design and, more memorably, the projection design by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras show both the graffiti-covered neighborhood where Manford lives and video of the 1989 Beijing uprising.
The Great Leap runs through December 5, 2021, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets and information, please call (240) 644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
By Lauren Yee