Steppenwolf presents THE GREAT LEAP Review – paying for free throws, A HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Chicago Best Play Pick
“It’s always your turn,” says Saul, coach of the University of San Francisco’s basketball team, when it comes to behavior on the court. “You Americans can never wait your turn,” counters Wen Chang, coach of Beijing University’s team. Facing a U.S.-Chinese friendship game in June 1989, the two men express their different world views in stark terms.
In between Saul and Wen Chang in Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Lauren Yee’s THE GREAP LEAP is Manford Lum. A 17-year-old high schooler from the streets of Chinatown, Manford wants to play the upcoming friendship game in the worst way. The under-six-feet point guard shows up at USF’s practice one day, demanding to be included. When Saul pushes back, Manford sinks a hundred free throws and convinces the coach, whose team is faltering, to let it be his turn.
No hoops onstage at Steppenwolf
Directed by Jesca Prudencio and designed by Justin Humphres, the story pounds its way on a basketball court without actual hoops. In those positions on either side of the stage are metal grill boxes from which colored spotlights spin and bob like bouncing balls. Above the tiered audience seats are screens that project scoreboards, Beijing street scenes and other visuals that take us back and forth between countries and time periods. From the opening scene when Manford makes his urgent case to Saul till the final moments, the driving intensity doesn’t let up.
Fine acting quartet in THE GREAT LEAP
Saul and Wen Chang first meet in 1971 during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. Somehow, despite Mao Zedong’s determination to rid the People’s Republic of China of capitalist influences, the crusty foul-mouthed coach travels to Beijing and instructs the dutiful Party member on developing a basketball team. An able and well-cast pair, Keith Kupferer as Saul and James Saol as Wen Chang clash and connect and then part ways for 18 years. In the interim, Wen Chang cultivates Chinese talent, tall as weeds, and builds a formidable team. Saul, “the least circumcised Jew from the Bronx,” finds his USF job in jeopardy after a poor season.
Initially put off by underage, under-height Manford – played with explosive agility by Glenn Obrero – Saul turns to him for his own career survival. Rounding out the fine acting quartet is Deanna Myers as Manford’s cousin Connie. The young woman isn’t really a biological relative. Chinatown-community style, her parents took Manford under their wing when his immigrant single mother moved into their building. Now his mother has died and Connie steps in as the lone advocate for Manford’s off-court wellbeing.
Tianamen Square protests and cultural identity
Though her concerns are far more personal, Connie unwittingly has good reason to worry about Manford’s upcoming trip to Beijing. It’s June 1989 and the Tiananmen Square protests are brewing as the bus makes its way through the streets. Manford disappears and ends up in the crowds, leading a chant of “U.S.A, U.S.A.”
When Wen Chang discovers this blatant transgression, he threatens Saul with excluding Manford from the game. Layers of history underpin this threat. The introspective Chinese coach describes the deep losses that accompany his success in creating a competitive basketball time. If Saul lives in fear of getting fired for losing too many games, Wen Chang lives in fear of stepping out of line. “Waiting your turn” is less about polite gamesmanship than about avoiding unfavorable attention from the authorities. He has already paid a steep price for stepping back into a shadow of safety.
As THE GREAT LEAP moves towards its closing dramatic buzzer, we learn about encounters from the past that impact the present in significant ways. Many scenes earlier, Saul noted “Just because it’s a free throw doesn’t make it free.” Indeed, sending a ball successfully through a hoop and scoring a point turns out to be anything but free.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Glenn Obrero, Deanna Myers, Keith Kupferer and James Seol
Lauren Yee (Playwright), Jesca Prudencio (Director), Justin Humphres (Scenic Design), Jenny Mannis (Costume Design), Keith Parham (Lighting Design), Nok Kanchanabanca (Sound Design and Original Music), Rasean Davonte Johnson (Projection Design) and Gigi Buffington (Company Voice and Text Coach), Christine D. Freeburg (Stage Manager), Kat Barrett (Assistant Stage Manager)
Now through October 20
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Sundays at 3:00 PM
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Chicago, IL 60614
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.