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Basketball serves as a multifaceted metaphor in Lauren Yee's The Great Leap
Growing up, Lauren Yee's father Larry loved to regale her with tales from his youth, especially how he used to play basketball all day and night on the asphalt courts of San Francisco's Chinatown. In 1981, Larry even traveled to China to play against the country's top team. "The father I know is goofy and funny and an all-around nice guy," the playwright says. And yet, whenever he talked about basketball, his personality transformed. Suddenly he became a "scrappy, masculine, cocky young man who is like, 'I am dominant over the whole court -- I can take over the world!'"
Though her dad was 6'1'' and his basketball nickname was "Spider," he never did go pro. But his glory days, brief though they were, helped inspire Yee's play The Great Leap, currently running at Atlantic Theater Company. In this New York premiere, Manford (played by Tony Aidan Vo), a feisty and opinionated Chinese-American teen, travels to China to play basketball…and then the Tiananmen Square protests break out.
"I was interested in looking at a country in the midst of a crisis, this very sharp divide between one generation and the next about the direction China was going," explains Yee about why she fused a fictionalized version of her father's trip with the student-led demonstrations that rocked the world in 1989. That generational gap is reflected in the interactions between Manford and Chinese basketball coach Wen Chang (played by Tony winner BD Wong). While the Chinese-American teen isn't afraid to take up space and grab opportunity, the Chinese man is measured and reserved. As Wen Chang explains in the play, "Growing up, you did not want to be someone. You wanted to be the person three people behind someone. Because being someone could get you killed."
Yee is careful not to exoticize Wen Chang by making him one of the narrators of the piece, so the audience understands why he views the world the way he does. It was also Yee's way of showing the difference between American and Chinese sensibilities. Even though Manford is of Chinese descent, "his story is a story of an American kid -- he is someone who was born and raised in a country where certain values and personality traits are emphasized and celebrated," Yee says. "There are a lot of parallels between these two characters, but they just had vastly different frames of reference, in how they lived their lives and what choices they should be making."
Ultimately The Great Leap jumps beyond ethnic stereotypes to examine cultural and generational collisions. And there's basketball, too, which isn't just a plot device; it's a metaphor. "It's about people stepping up and seizing the spotlight when the moment befalls them," Yee says, noting that "there's a kinship between theatre and sports, about what happens when a performer or an athlete does something extraordinary and we're all watching that live. We can recall a moment when we saw another human being do that. It remains with us."
Yee admits she didn't follow basketball before she started writing The Great Leap, but now she's "fallen in love with the strategy and beauty of the teamwork." And she's excited to show enthusiasts that Jeremy Lin isn't the only Chinese-American ever to play the sport. Just like her father, Manford is "this incredibly driven athletic aggressive young man who happens to be Chinese-American," she says. "That may seem uncommon to some NBA fans, but it's something that I grew up with. And it's incredibly satisfying for me to share that character with the rest of the world."
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Top image: Tony Aidan Vo in The Great Leap. Photos by Ahron R. Foster.
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