Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Basketball Jones: CenterREP’s “The Great Leap”

By Barry Willis

A pivotal year, 1989 saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and widespread anti-government protests in China, culminating in the months-long protest occupation of Beijng’s Tiananmen Square, and the ultimate declaration of martial law that resulted in countless deaths and injuries.

It was also the year of an important basketball game between the University of San Francisco and Peking University (as it was known then)—at least, in Lauren Yee’s fictional retelling in The Great Leap, the CenterREP production at the Lesher Center for the Arts through April 7.

… All four performers are wonderful. …

In Yee’s dramatic comedy, the game coincides with the final days of the Tiananmen Square protest—an event that figures prominently as a secondary plot element. (The actual USF vs. PU game took place in 1981, one in which Yee’s father played.)

Taking its title from “The Great Leap Forward” as the Chinese Cultural Revolution was called, the play involves only four actors—Cassidy Brown as a USF coach named Saul, his Peking University counterpart Wen Chang (Edward Chen), a Chinatown high-school basketball prodigy named Manford (James Aaron Oh), and Manford’s “cousin” Connie (Nicole Tung).

Manford (center -James Aaron Oh) makes a shot as Saul (left – Cassidy Brown) and Wen (right – Edward Chen) watch in Center Repertory Company’s “The Great Leap,” presented March 16 – April 7 at Lesher Center for the Arts. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Saul is sweating bullets about the upcoming game, where he will be reunited with his friendly rival Wen, when Manford approaches him about joining the USF team despite being only 17 years old, not having graduated from high school, and not being nearly as tall as other players.

Manford’s ability on the court is well-depicted even if we never see him make a free throw or sink a fadeaway jump shot. He makes much of the importance of basketball in Chinatown—his mother was a star player in her native China—while Saul dismisses him with salty language very much reminiscent of standup comic Rodney Dangerfield.

Saul (Cassidy Brown) coaches Manford (James Aaron Oh) in Center Repertory Company’s “The Great Leap,” thru 4/7/2024. Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

Manford’s persistence pays off and he joins the team despite Saul’s misgivings and Wen’s warnings that his presence may not be officially approved. As the play’s anchor character, Nicole Tung gives both Manford and the audience much-needed schooling in practical reality. All four performers are wonderful.

Directed by Nicholas C. Avila, who also directed CenterREP’s tremendous In the Heights, Yee’s tightly-woven script combines issues about international politics, high-level sport, cultural identity, and the nature of parentage, friendship, rivalry, and commitment to a code of personal conduct. All of this is beautifully depicted on the Margaret Lesher stage, doing multiple duties as basketball court, coaches’ offices, hotel rooms, apartments, and more—an elegant bit of set design by Yi-Chien Lee, whose projections add resonance to this emotionally engaging production.

Connie (Nicole Tung) gives her cousin Manford (James Aaron Oh) advice in Center Rep’s “The Great Leap.” Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

As with many current comedies, The Great Leap takes a serious turn toward the closing of the second act. That’s perhaps as it should be—eventually, life has a way of making everyone reconsider the frivolous importance of even our most cherished pursuits.


Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


**Special thanks to Portland Center Stage for graphics.

ProductionThe Great Leap
Written byLauren Yee
Directed byNicholas C. Avila
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThru April 7th, 2024
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Other Voices on: “The Great Leap”

"...Lauren Yee’s "The Great Leap", ... reconfigure(s) Chinese history into a story between parents and children, mapping painful histories of nations onto the painful histories of family. In this so-called “socio-political fable,” allegory and memory are intertwined to both delightful and calamitous effect."
"...Renowned for deftly combining her San Francisco roots, Chinese culture and global politics, (Lauren) Yee puts it all together in this often humorous, yet emotionally stirring piece of theatre..."Broadwayworld.com
"..."The Great Leap" opens with hearty humor and carries its audience along in an absorbing story until a profound poignancy begins to permeate the senses..."Stageandcinema.com