Cygnet Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Robert Lutfy has been a fan of playwright Lauren Yee’s works. But when he saw she wrote a play about basketball, “The Great Leap,” he was sold.
“I read ‘Hookman’ and ‘King of the Yees,’” Lutfy recalls.
“When I found out she wrote a play about basketball, I was super excited. Lauren is always messing with the form of theater—the event of theater—in an interesting way.
“I never thought I would have the right or be able to direct one of her plays.”
Yee’s “The Great Leap” will stage at the Cygnet Theatre from January 22 to February 16. It tells the story of an American basketball team that travels to Beijing for an exhibition game in 1989. For two men with a past and one teen with a future, the game is a chance to claim personal victories on and off the court. Tensions rise up to the final buzzer as a pivotal moment in history collides with the action in the arena.
“Like all of Lauren’s plays, there’s a theme of family secrets,” Lutfy says. “When those family secrets are revealed, there’s a catharsis at the end of the play.”
The cast features Edward Chen, Manny Fernandes, Keiko Green and Scott Keiji Takena.
“Lauren was very excited about the cast, too,” Lutfy says. “The woman playing Connie (Green) originated the role and is reprising it. A lot of UCSD alum, too. Lauren Yee graduated from there. Two of the four actors graduated from UCSD. Four of my designers went there. UCSD has a huge presence.”
A North Carolina native, Lutfy grew up with basketball, specifically North Carolina Tar Heels hoops. He has fond memories of playing the game with his father, so he can somewhat relate to “The Great Leap.”
“It’s not my culture, but it is about a young man trying to find home and what that means to him,” Lutfy says. “It’s about the relationship with his parents, for sure.”
Lutfy contends that everything Yee does is with meaning. For example, she depicts a pick and roll—an offensive play in which a player sets a screen (pick) for a teammate handling the ball and then moves toward the basket (rolls) to receive a pass—and that concept is laced throughout the play.
The Chinese-American characters have a friend who’s Jewish and, Lutfy says, that makes perfect sense.
“Why does Lauren make him Jewish, other than it’s another marginalized group of people in the country?” Lutfy says.
“Jewish people were the first players in the NBA. The first player to ever score a goal in the NBA was a Jewish player.”
In China, basketball is revered. Basketball is the only sport other than ping pong that was not banned by Chairman Mao, who believed it promoted Communist ideals, Lutfy says.
“When we think of basketball, we think of it as the most progressive sport—the sport of Obama, Black Lives Matter jerseys, kneeling at the anthem. There’s no controversy because it’s a liberal sport,” he adds.
“In China, this idea that this sport is representing Communist ideals is happening at the same time. Now, China watches more basketball than America does. They consume more products than America does. It’s a huge phenomenon there.”
‘A really nice surprise’
Yee says the success of “The Great Leap” has been a “really nice surprise.”
“You hope you get one production, but to have so many different ones and forms or iterations of it has been great,” Yee says.
“Honestly, there are a lot of basketball fans out there. I think that’s one reason it’s so popular. Basketball diplomacy, international relations and history all make it in this play in very unexpected ways. Those are entry points for a lot of different people.”
Yee’s father played basketball while growing up in San Francisco—and he was pretty good at it, according to her. He traveled for games and went to China in 1981.
“This was at a time when the country just recently opened up to outside tourists,” she adds. “It was his first look at what the country was like, where his parents came from but never went to. That was the starting point for the play.”
Yee travels to theaters as often as possible to see companies’ interpretations of her plays.
“One of the joys of being a playwright is potentially seeing some of these productions, many of which I’m not directly involved in,” she says.
“It’s a delight to witness different people’s take on the show. It lends itself to wildly different interpretations and configurations. There are some nerves involved, but at the same time, my work is done. It’s not about worrying about my own work. I know the play holds. I find it exciting.”
Lufty has his own theory on “The Great Leap’s” popularity.
“I think basketball, much like soccer, can be played on a budget,” he says. “You don’t need much. You just need a ball and a net on a tree.”
Basketball is an individualized sport as well, as in China they keep statistics on dunks, for example.
“The individual can be represented in basketball,” he says. “The individual can excel. There’s a star quality to basketball.”
He’s quick to add “The Great Leap” isn’t necessarily “about” basketball. Yee uses it as a metaphor on creating distance between one person and the defender to take a shot.
“The event of theater and sport, to me, are very similar,” Lutfy says. “Both require physicality, fast thinking, hours of preparation and responsiveness.
“They’re shared live experiences, and both are influenced by reactions and the energy of their audience. In sports, you’re an athlete of your body. In theater, you are as well, but more of an athlete of your heart.”
Yee captures this, he says.
“I go to SDSU games and I’ll be sitting there noticing there’s a similar sense of camaraderie—a clear villain and a hero in the narrative of the game,” Lutfy says.
“Most people aren’t on their cellphones. They’re full-bodied engaged with what’s happening in front of them. You hear the ‘bum-bum’ and you know to yell, ‘Defense!’ There’s a sense of ritual similar to the ritual of theater. Lauren really captures that.”
“The Great Leap,” various times Wednesday, January 22, to Sunday, February 16, Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town, 619.337.1525, cygnettheatre.com.