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The Great Leap

There is a long history of conflation between politics and sport. In the previous century, as the Nazis rose to power, the two heavyweight championship bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling and the performance of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, in the heart of the Third Reich, took on global significance. A few decades later (1967), Mohammed Ali challenged the morality of the war in Vietnam, and was stripped of his title for it, while in his prime. The next year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team for raising black-gloved fists on the medal podium as a protest of U.S. racism. Last year, Colin Kaepernick was mocked, threatened, and blackballed from the NFL for taking a knee to protest the slaughter of blacks by the police in the U.S. This year, during the run up to the 2018 Winter Olympics, Russian athletes were prohibited from competing by drug tests under dubious controls. The highlight, though, came during the Opening Ceremonies, when the two Koreas marched in unity, diffusing threats of nuclear war by the U.S. toward North Korea, via provocative nearby war games and Twitter bullying, this after dropping more bombs on Korea during the 50's than were dropped in Europe during WWII. Now, after a brief respite, The New York Times, as the lead public relations mouthpiece for the international banking cartel and its corporate profiteers, is gleefully back at beating the drums of war.

Linden Tailor as Manford
Linden Tailor as Manford
Photo: AdamsVisCom
In the world premiere of The Great Leap, playwright Lauren Yee takes us back to an similarly incendiary time, when the U.S., as a proxy for the cartel, had not yet fully forced China into acting as an industrial slave state, to bear the brunt of low wages and environmental degradation, via the various manufacturing requirements for smelting heavy metals to produce high-tech devices for the world's largest consumer market (the U.S.). Given socio-political conditions in China during the two periods of the story—the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1971) and the demonstrations in Beijing leading to the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989)—the team-oriented game of basketball was the perfect sporting catalyst for "normalizing" relations.

Bob Ari as Saul
Bob Ari as Saul
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Drawing on choice stories from her dad, sifted through fictional characters and their relationships, blended with some notable historical events, and neatly tucked into a wrap of well-seasoned propaganda, Yee serves a dramatic tale that builds to the final buzzer of a "friendship game" between China and U.S. in 1989, 13 years after Mao had passed from the scene. Manford (Linden Tailor) is a cocky, basketball-crazy, Chinese-American kid about to graduate high school in San Francisco. He hears that the University of San Francisco (USF) basketball team, and their coach, Saul (Bob Ari), are travelling across the Pacific to play an improved Chinese national team, coached by Wen Chang (Joseph Steven Yang), a one-time protégé of Saul. Manfred must convince Saul of his worth, and persuade his "cousin," Connie (Keiko Green), that he can miss school (for practice, travel, and the game) and still graduate.

Joseph Steven Yang as Wen Ching
Joseph Steven Yang as Wen Ching
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Tailor deftly employs the beats of a swift playmaker's dribble, as the point-guard, Manfred, who sets an up-tempo rhythmic pace, while out-maneuvering all defenders to reach his objectives: determine the outcome of the game and make a personal connection that had been missing from his life. Ari's Saul matches Manfred's scansion as a brash, former standout hoopster from Brooklyn, who has coached USF to national prominence. Manfred's and Saul's driven natures provide stark contrast to the circumspect Wen, whose every move and utterance is filtered to avoid suspicion of any sort, given the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, tepid as they were compared to the French Revolution's Committee for Public Safety. The U.S. equivalent would be the House Un-American Activities Committee, which served as the springboard for Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts.

Linden Tailor as Manford and Keiko Green as Connie
Linden Tailor as Manford
and Keiko Green as Connie
Photo: AdamsVisCom
We can feel Yan's creative tension between Wen's personal feelings and the boundaries of the Party's thought police, long before Google, Amazon, and Facebook began censoring outside-the-(red-party-blue-party-)box posts with their sophisticated algorithms. This makes for a series of humorous exchanges between Yan and Ari, exemplifying how we see the Chinese and how they see us. The only person that Manford heeds is Connie, who, despite her young age, serves as his adopted mother. Green channels a young, hip, Chinese-American woman who understands Manford's drive for excellence and familial redemption.

Despite getting hung-up on a narrow point-of-view of international politics, the personal stories are engaging, and the big game comes down to the last shot.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of The Great Leap, by Lauren Yee, runs through March 11th. For tickets: denvercenter.org/shows.

Bob Bows



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