With humor and passion, Yee’s ‘Leap’ raises the bar and makes strides

L to R: Ali Ahn, Ned Eisenberg, Tony Aidan Vo and BD Wong in Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 through June 24. | Photo by Ahron R. Foster

BY MARK NIMAR | On stage, in film, and on television, an Asian character is more likely to be practicing medicine or working with technology than scoring a three-pointer or dribbling a basketball down a court. This narrow mainstream portrayal, however, is not what Chinese American playwright Lauren Yee experienced during her formative years in San Francisco. Growing up, “The people I knew who played basketball were Asian,” she noted. “My father played basketball. Every day, all night, on the asphalt courts and rec center floors of San Francisco Chinatown, [and] he was good. Really good.” So much so, in fact, Yee noted, “People [now] stop us on the street and try to explain to me what a legend he was.”

Her father’s passion for basketball is the subject of Yee’s “The Great Leap,” a smashing new play running at the Atlantic Theater Company through June 24. It concerns a friendship basketball game between Beijing University and the University of San Francisco that occurs in Beijing during the 1989 student riots at Tiananmen Square.

At the center of the play is Manford, a young first-generation American loosely based on Yee’s father. Although 17 and only five foot seven, Manford desperately wants to join the USF team as a point guard and go to Beijing. But Saul, the team’s tough-as-nails coach, completely doubts his abilities and refuses to let him on the team. Through tenacity and talent, Manford becomes the star of the basketball team, and while in Beijing, gets accidentally swept into the politics of Communist China. The play bubbles with humor, burns with passion, and is a testament to the very American notion of hard work and persistence as a means to transcend the limitations of one’s race or society.

Like Manford, Yee has also had to overcome the negative expectations of white audience members. “One of my bigger pet peeves is when an audience member decides that one of my plays is not for them, because it’s about Asians,” she said, noting how white audience members often say, “What a great Chinese folk tale,” or “I think my Chinese friend would appreciate it.” But Yee feels her work is more relatable than general audiences are predisposed to give it credit for. She said that “The Great Leap” is “a universal story that anyone can relate to,” and that assertion will bear itself out to those who attend. At its heart, the play is an immigrant story about finding your way in a society than can be unaccepting — a very typical storyline that is in step with Irish American, Italian American, and Jewish American narratives. And when you add sports to the equation, the play is about as American as apple pie. It’s a show in which just about anyone can find something that they like.

L to R: Tony Aidan Vo as Manford and Ali Ahn as Connie. | Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Despite the accessibility of plays like “The Great Leap,” it is a constant struggle to get plays about the Asian American experience, contemporary or otherwise, produced. “Theaters don’t want to take a chance,” Yee said, noting that when it comes time to fill a season, “They often just end up doing another production of ‘The Zoo Story.’ ”

But something is shifting. Asian American playwrights are having a bit of a moment right now. Young Jean Lee’s play “Straight White Men” will make history as the first play written by an Asian woman to appear on Broadway. Qui Nguyen’s daring play “Vietgone” had a wildly successful run at the Manhattan Theatre Club last season, and was also a New York Times Critics’ Pick. And Pakistani American playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk” was performed at Lincoln Center this season. His Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Disgraced,” was also named the most-produced play in America for the 2015-2016 season. While the American theatre has a long way to go in giving more visibility to Asian American artists, one can’t help but marvel at the new Asian American stories being added to the canon. “Back in the day,” Yee said, “all we had was ‘The Joy Luck Club.’ And now, we have so many more options.”

Yee is a standout member of this club of Asian American playwrights, and her Asian American-themed plays such as “King of the Yees,” “Ching Chong Chinaman” and “Cambodian Rock Band” have gone a long way in adding humor, spunk, and diversity to the American theatre. “The Great Leap” continues this winning streak — the show is marvelous. The stage has been transformed into a basketball court, transforming the audience into spectators sitting courtside. Stunning projections flash across the wall, displaying photos of Tiananmen Square and the defiant student protestors of 1989, who are “only afraid to die with no one watching.”

BD Wong as Wen Chang, the play’s narrator. | Photo by Ahron R. Foster

“That is why they write so many of their signs in English,” says Wen Chang (BD Wong), the play’s narrator, “So that the western press might empathize with their plight.” The show also has hilarious moments. Crusty, Bronx-born basketball coach Saul (Ned Eisenberg) shouts insults and expletives at his players during practice, reminding you of your most embarrassing relative at Thanksgiving. And Tony Aidan Vo is stellar in the role of Manford. He is a kinetic ball of energy, dashing across the court with the vigor and passion of a champion. On stage, Manford jumps, shoots, and fights like his life depends on it. Facing the judgments of Saul, his cousin, and the threat of Communist China, Manford has all the odds stacked against him. And watching this underdog point guard meet his challenges head-on is both thrilling and inspiring.

There is another basketball player, however, that Lauren Yee hopes sees her show. “Come find me, Jeremy Lin,” Yee exclaimed. For those who don’t know, Jeremy Lin is a basketball player who is the first American of Chinese descent to play in the NBA. His talent on the court helped transform stereotypes about Asian men in sports. It seems as if this show was written just for him. And so, Jeremy Lin, if you’re reading this, stop what you are doing and head over to the Atlantic Theater Company, where you will find another Chinese American whose talent also shatters expectations, sets a high bar, and reaches that lofty goal — but instead of doing it with layups, she does it with words.

Directed by Taibi Magar. Through June 24 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 (330 W. 16th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.). Tues.Sat. at 7:30pm, Sat. & Sun. at 2:30pm. There are 7:30pm performances on Sun., June 10, 17 and 24; Monday performance on June 11. No Tues. performance on June 12. For tickets ($50 and up), visit atlantictheater.org or call 866-811-4111.

Stunning projections flash across the wall, displaying photos of Tiananmen Square and the defiant student protestors of 1989. | Photo by Ahron R. Foster

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