Sunday, March 17, 2019

Basketball inspires 'The Great Leap'

Manford (Tim Liu) tries to convince Connie (Ruibo Qian) to allow him to go to China.

Playwright Lauren Yee draws from family and Chinese history in “The Great Leap,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

Her father, Peter, played basketball in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was recruited to an amateur team that played a professional team in Taiwan in 1977.

The fictionalized plot takes place in China and San Francisco.

At first the University of San Francisco basketball coach, Saul (Arye Gross), is in China in 1971 to teach the Chinese how to play American style basketball. His translator is Wen Chang (BD Wong), who becomes the Chinese coach.

Seventeen years later, Saul’s USF team is slated to go to China to play a team there. A 17-year-old high school point guard, Manford (Tim Liu), whose late mother was a Chinese immigrant, badgers Saul to join the team. Reluctant at first, Saul relents.

In the meantime, Manford’s older cousin, Connie (Ruibo Qian), also is reluctant to let Manford go, especially since he’s so close to graduating and since there’s political unrest in China.

Once in China, Manford meets Wen Chang, who is his father, and gets swept in the Tiananmen Square uprising.

As directed by Lisa Peterson, the four actors do well with what they have to work with in this not always involving story.

Saul (Arye Gross, right) confronts Wen Chang (BD Wong).
The most interesting character is Wen Chang. He knows that in order to survive under brutal Chinese regimes, he must be insignificant. Wong does so by holding his arms close to his side and moving as little as possible.

The most unlikable character is Saul, the foul-mouthed coach who spews streams of obscenities.

Liu embodies Manford’s pesky teenage irrepressibility along with his basketball skills. Qian as Connie shows an almost motherly concern for him.

Robert Brill has designed the spare yet effective set, augmented by Hana S. Kim’s projections and Yi Zhao’s lighting. The costumes are by Meg Neville, the sound by Jake Rodriguez.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The Great Leap” will continue through March 31 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne