“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
– Nelson Mandela accepting the Laureus World Sports Awards’ first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, (25 May 2000)
Remember that scene in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X when an imprisoned Malcolm Little (as his name was at the time) witnesses fellow Black inmates beat the White ones in baseball to celebrate the news that Jackie Robinson will play major-league baseball? Malcolm’s shared pride is immediately destroyed by his new spiritual mentor, Baines, who tells him that Black people have nothing to celebrate – it wasn’t as if Robinson’s new status would end racism (quite the contrary: it just pissed off racists more) or erase the history of the United States discriminating against Black people.
It’s true, Robinson’s success didn’t wave a magic wand over the disease of racism… but that’s not the point. The point is that a marginalized person was able to break into an industry traditionally walled off to them, and the (often-White male) majority can’t stop them. It’s in defiance of every discriminating regulation that insists marginalized folks fail because they’re inherently inferior. When we say “Representation Matters”, we mean that it gives other marginalized peoples – especially kids – heroes that actually look like them. It may not be a political gain, but it’s a social one.
Where the waters get murky is when it’s an industry that isn’t traditionally White male-dominated. The simple fact is that Eurocentrism is so ubiquitous that any non-White male succeeding in one of their industries is progress, but the reverse will likely be appropriation. When it’s one non-White succeeding in the industry of another non-White, it’s not as simple. That’s why everyone’s quick to scrutinize any non-Black rapper or non-Asian martial artist: they don’t have as many options as their White counterparts, so they’re protective of the safe spaces they do have. Still, that doesn’t give Shaq any right to say racist bullshit about Yao Ming.
But, as pointed out in another Spike Lee joint, “Yao Ming dunked on Shaq! Twice!” It’s that sort of search for an idol that informs The Great Leap, a tale about growing up as a basketball-loving Chinese-American in the Bay Area. It’s a worthy quest, to be sure. It’s just that the final destination doesn’t seem completely worth it.
Manford is a great ball player and he knows it. But that’s not enough, he wants the whole world to know it. So, when he finds Saul – the USF coach who famously “took on the Chinese” in 1971 – he gives the coach a chance to reclaim his fame and Manford a chance to give his life meaning.
Standing in their way is Wen Chang, Saul’s translator during his ’71 visit and coach of the new Chinese team. Wen Chang was originally put off by the crass American, but the years have given him insight into the value of American-style play. As civil unrest becomes too loud to ignore, this game may be Wen Chang’s opportunity to show China’s best to world. Little does he know how much his opponents will through his entire world into upheaval.
The ACT is currently showing two shows about being a “hyphen-American” person of color. The first, Her Portmanteau, is a solid-if-imperfect look at the fine line between “African” and “American”. The Great Leap has moments when it could pull off that kind of insight, but it goes for a more cartoonish approach to its characters that winds up hurting it in the end. Written by SF’s own Lauren Yee, her Bay Area upbringing serves her well when verbally creating the geography of her NorCal home. It also has a great many bon mots about Saul’s hypocrisy to an Asian ballplayer, whom he rejects outright. “If you were Black—” Saul tries to explain. “If I were Black,” Manford cuts in, “I’d be in the NBA.”
Where the script and production falter are when they go for broad comedy, rather than letting the humor grow out of the natural absurdity of the situations. After all, Manford is a 17-year-old highschooler when he approaches Saul – the very idea that he thinks he’d have a chance to picked for an international team is absurd. The fact that he proves himself talented enough to do adds a great dimension to the situation. But Yee’s basketball script is more volleyball-like in the way it bounces back-and-forth from drama to comedy, often favoring the latter. All of the characters are drawn in broad strokes and given to long-winded ramblings that seem to well-practiced when they should feel spontaneous. And the soap opera-like twist near the end was a bit too easy to see coming (the actual ending was just too on-the-nose to take seriously).
Of the cast members, Ruibo Qian is the real standout and Manford’s cousin Connie. Qian finds the perfect balance between maternal nurturing and fraternal piss-taking that I wish I’d seen in the rest of the cast. By playing Connie grounded, she commands every moment she’s on stage by simply being there. I don’t say that as a knock to veteran actors BD Wong (he walked past me at the opening night party – heart-shaped emoji), Arye Gross, and Tim Liu. It’s just that their performances went past the point of projecting for the nosebleeds (where, incidentally, I was seated) to lacking a lot of the necessary nuance.
Technically speaking, Robert Brill’s stripped-down set is wonderfully paired with Hana S. Kim’s projections. Brill’s set consists of a hardwood basketball floor and hanging stadium lights that are later accentuated by the occasional apartment wall or office accoutrement. With Kim’s wall-sized projections, these become everything from an SF ball court to Tiananmen Square (yes, that Tiananmen Square) with the simplest of grace. It’s hard for me to talk of Danyon Davis’ movement coaching, as my feelings will likely be influenced by the theatre folk sitting next to me in the nosebleeds that night. They boasted that they can tell when an actor isn’t naturally an athlete by the way they move. “And that guy,” they said of Liu, “is not an athlete.” As such, I’ll say that Meg Neville’s costumes (based on those of Tilly Grimes from the NY production) are eye-catching.
The Great Leap has a lot going for it in terms of talent, but it missteps by going sitcom-big too often. It certainly isn’t a bad show, but of the ACT’s two current “culture-clash” shows, it’s the less-strong of the two.
The Great Leap is scheduled to run until the 31st of March at the ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.