The Great Leap crosses cultures with courtside feel, but comedy sometimes gets fumbled

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      By Lauren Yee. Directed by Meg Roe. An Arts Club Theatre Company production, presented by special arrangement with Samuel French Inc. At the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Thursday, May 2. Continues until May 19

      With the 30-year anniversary of the June 4 crackdown at Tiananmen Square drawing near, there is no better time to be staging a production of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap. Does it manage to sink its shot?

      The Great Leap focuses on the lead-up to the first-ever exhibition basketball match between the U.S.A. and China, in 1989. Plucky 17-year-old Manford, played by Milton Lim, is determined to play in the match despite his short stature. He seeks to prove himself to the U.S.A. team’s obnoxious coach, Saul (Toby Berner), by making 100 consecutive free throws. However, he must first convince his protective cousin Connie (Agnes Tong) to let him go.

      Manford’s journey to Beijing is interspersed with flashbacks of Saul’s first visit to China, where he strikes up a friendship with Wen Chang (Jovanni Sy), a timid interpreter destined to coach the Chinese team for the exhibition match. As these stories weave in and out of each other, everything culminates on the fateful day of the match: the day of the June 4 massacre.

      While alley-style seating often poses unique challenges for staging, director Meg Roe capitalizes on the space by having actors “courtside” in the front row, emulating the feel of an actual basketball game. On the production side, projections by the design team Chimerik delight, with geometric patterns tessellating at every scene transition.

      On the other hand, Yee’s script unfortunately falls short on basketball action and compelling political drama. Its biggest problem lies in the fact that its comedy too often relies on Asian stereotypes. In one scene, American coach Saul declares that his recommendation to the Communist party is the only reason why Wen Chang is the Chinese team’s coach. In another, Manford is surprised that the Chinese team consists of players who could be over seven feet tall. While playwright Lauren Yee (who also wrote the comedy King of the Yees) is Chinese-American, and appears to be poking fun at how white people perceive the Asian community, audiences instead laugh at, say, Saul referring to the Communist party’s leader as “Deng Xiao Ping Pong Ping Pong” because it sounds funny. Yee does an excellent job of humanizing the struggle of Asian athletes, especially when Manford proves himself more than a worthy of the USA team, by landing 99 successive free throws. But too often, she falls back on cheap shots.

      On the acting side, Lim makes a respectable Arts Club debut, bringing a youthful cockiness to Manford as he convinces Saul to give him a spot on the team. Berner’s Saul and Sy’s Wen Chang have decent chemistry, with their polar-opposite personalities bringing out the comedy in Yee’s banter. Tong’s Connie is the standout in this production, injecting a playful energy into her physicality as she shoots some hoops with her cousin, balancing the protective and the fun-loving sides of her character.

      I commend the Arts Club’s initiative to showcase the talents of Asian-Canadians in its season, but in future I hope that Yee can dig deeper and push for meaning in her work.

      Milton Lim and Agnes Tong in The Great Leap.
      David Cooper