Eileen Doan, Ray Yamamoto, Garcy Yap and Jim Shankman in “The Great Leap.” Photo by Rachel Philipson

The season opener at Portland Stage keeps a lot of thematic balls in the air in attempting to balance the pull of big historical events against a down-to-earth story of a young Chinese American basketball player who has personal reasons for wanting to be on the court.

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” a 2018 work centered around a basketball “friendship” game in the late 1980s between college teams from China and the United States, provides much to think about in one 90-minute sitting. But the play scores big on many levels before its rather striking end arrives. It’s an emotionally sophisticated play that also entertains with witty comedy, high and low, and the warmth thrown off from newly revealed relationships.

Historical context is provided by references to the largely disastrous policies of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution haunt the action of the play. Their continued influence is felt in a nation where being an outstanding individual in sports, or any field for that matter, could easily become a liability. Immigrants lucky enough to have escaped from Mao’s grip are also encompassed within playwright Yee’s vision of cultural and generational conflicts, large and small.

In this four-character play (with a cast of thousands occasionally projected on the back wall of the stage), young Manford (Ray Yamamoto) is a hyperkinetic high school basketball player intent on joining the University of San Francisco team for a long-awaited game in China, a land from which his recently deceased mother had emigrated before he was born.

USF coach Saul (Jim Shankman), an old-school throwback who years ago gave a sort of basketball clinic to Beijing coach Wen Chang (Norman Garcy Yap), is reluctantly won over by the hard sell of Manford, who sinks 99 of 100 free throws to demonstrate his skill.

Manford’s surrogate cousin Connie (Eileen Doan) watches over him from afar as the young man finds himself, shortly after arrival in China, immersed in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. Personal histories are revealed as the opposing coaches argue over what to do about Manford’s misadventures.


The ultimate game, narrated by all four characters as they circle around the stage in choreographed, basketball-like movements, leads to a decision by Wen Chang, the most buttoned-up and tormented of all, to reflect on what has been the toll on him of living within an oppressive state.

All the performances are compelling, with Shankman and Yap particularly effective at humanizing their characters in scenes where their facades wear thin. Doan and Yamamoto also bring focus to the complicated lives of young Americans with some far away roots.

The geometric scenic design by Anita Stewart (her best yet?) captures the lines and divisions of a basketball court while contextualizing the lives of the characters. Projections (design by Dylan Uremovich) convey a time of change add drama.

Natsu Onoda Power has directed this co-production with New York’s Hangar Theatre with a sensitivity to what might bring people together before the final buzzer sounds.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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