‘The Great Leap’ examines U.S.-China relations, through hoops

Zi Alikhan directs the Lauren Yee sharp and funny play featuring hero and quarreling entities who lack understanding.

COURTESY PHOTO: ALEC LUGO - Tommy Bo stars as Manford Lum in The Great Leap, staging at The Armory.It’s not a news flash to say that relations between United States and China haven’t been great in recent years, given the trade war between the countries, China’s ascension on the world scene, China’s poor human rights record and arguments over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Against the backdrop of China-United States relations, the play “The Great Leap,” a sharp and funny basketball story set in the 1980s with a cultural and political theme, will be staged in Portland Jan. 21 to Feb. 13, and director Zi Alikhan believe it’s an opportunity for people of all ethnicities to think about differences among each other.

“I always say that I think theater artists and people who work in entertainment have the responsibility and opportunity to create pathways of empathy for people,” he said. “The more we center stories on stage that people are not used to seeing or outside of their own stories, or create heroes, the more the general public accepts that everybody can be a hero.

“You see stories about communities that are not your own, or somebody being mistreated or using language about somebody outside of their community, and when you’re seeing heroes onstage they change that behavior and create proximity between them and the others.”

COURTESY PHOTO: ARTISTS REP/PCS - Zi Alikhan makes his Portland directorial debut with The Great Leap.

It’s a combined play by Artists Repertory Theatre and Portland Center Stage. The plot: “The Great Leap” brings together basketball, politics and history to explore personal identity, cultural ties and relations between the U.S. and China. The play is loosely inspired by the real-life adventures of screenwriter Lauren Yee’s father, whose basketball heroics led him to visit China in the 1980s. Its fictional plot — set in Beijing and San Francisco in two different time periods — also incorporates a monumental historic event, the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, for a moving story that keeps the tension rising right up until the final buzzer.

The story follows basketball standout Manford Lum — the aforementioned “hero” — on the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He joins a college team traveling to Beijing for a “friendship” game, and the outcome isn’t what anyone expects. It pits a U.S. coach against his Chinese counterpart, and country-wide protests and cultural revolution against their deeply personal tolls and generational fractures.

It’s an all-Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander design team, and the cast includes mostly Asians, save for Darius Pierce, who plays Saul, the coach of the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team. Tommy Bo plays Manford and Kenneth Lee plays Wen Chang, coach of the Beijing University men’s basketball team.

Alikhan, Artist Rep’s artistic directing fellow, makes his Portland directing debut. His bio cites him as “a queer, first-generation, South Asian-American (Indian heritage), culturally Muslim theater director, educator and leader.”

The influence of Asians on the play was obviously part of the plan, Alikhan said.

“We talked a lot about how infrequently we as members of the community get the opportunity to be in charge of own stories on the American stage,” he said. “It’s more in the hands of writers and actors, and the creative team doesn’t reflect community and experience.

“I haven’t seen a team like this in my career. It can and should be an industry standard in how we tell our stories.”

Alikhan, who’s based in New York City, has been with Artists Rep since February 2021. He looks forward to his directorial debut.

“It felt like the stars aligning. It’s a play about a first-generation Asian-American kid from Northern California who grew up outside the (San Francisco) Bay Area and is short,” he said. “I saw myself in this play and this particular ambition that occupies the life of a first-generation kid. The carving out of space, and hooking on to parts of identity from parents that feels familiar and foreign to you.”

Alikhan said it’s funny that he hasn’t had much to do with sports in his life, while his brother studied to be a sports journalist. And, here it’s Alikhan who directs a basketball play, just after doing another sports play, “Red Speedo.”

He added: “Something that Lauren does beautifully in this play, it’s about basketball, but uses basketball to tell other stories. It’s a mode of communication. What else is so beautiful, especially in the world we’re living in today, during COVID time, with vaccinations and vaccine development and supply chain destruction, there are so many larger global conversations everybody has access to. There is soft power and hard power between nations and people in those nations. (Yee) uses basketball to tell the story of soft power and hard power.”

That much of the play is told through the eyes of Chinese characters adds to the story. It’s interesting timing for the play, coming just before the Beijing Winter Olympics, which the U.S. and other countries have diplomatically boycotted.

“It’s not really told by Americans,” Alihan said. “For the first time I’ve ever seen in a contemporary American play, you’re seeing the story of the relationship of China and U.S. in the late 1980s told through the Chinese lens. There’s something powerful about that; it doesn’t add the American gaze.

“There’s a real humanity of every moment of this play. It takes these giant political moments and turns them into the real human experiences at the center of every giant political moment.”

For tickets, see pcs.org/the-great-leap.

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