‘Leap’ of Faith

Lauren Yee’s play “The Great Leap” takes its name from the People’s Republic of China’s economic campaign, “The Great Leap Forward,” from the Mao Zedong era from 1949 to 1976.   

The play, which runs at the Pasadena Playhouse from Wednesday, November 6, to Sunday, December 1, is actually about a young Chinese-American man who travels to China with his team for a friendship basketball game. Soon, tension mounts when a young player’s actions become the focus of attention. 

Tony Award-winner BD Wong, of “Jurassic Park” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” has been in two productions—one on Broadway and another in San Francisco—playing the Chinese basketball coach. For the Pasadena Playhouse production, he’s taking on a new role: director.

The four-person cast won’t play a real basketball game, but that doesn’t mean the actors and Wong don’t take the sport seriously. In mid-October, when Wong and the cast had just started rehearsals, he said the production’s basketball expert was taking them through drills.

“I did play basketball,” Wong admitted. “I was vaguely familiar with basketball but that’s not my entry into the play. My entrance in the play is not from my love of basketball. It’s more from an appreciation for Lauren’s point of view and also for the world itself. The part actually doesn’t require the actor to play a lot of basketball.”

What he loves is the emotional arc and the Chinese coach’s humor. Wong did feel the need to learn about basketball when he was in his first production of the play.

“You always, always, always must feel that you want to learn about the world of the play you are in as much as possible,” he said.

He is certain that, “basketball fans will understand that she’s (Yee) researched the play very well,” but the play also “delves into the history of China during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and that’s a big part of the backdrop of the play.”

Wong’s second production was in San Francisco, where he and Yee were raised.

“In San Francisco, we had the luxury of being in the town where the play takes place and meeting the basketball coach of the school that is actually depicted in the play,” he said.

Wong recalled they “had great sessions with Coach Frank (Allocco) at USF who gave us not only insight into the game and the physicality of the basketball players and basketball moves, but insight into USF history.”

A crucial part of the production is the basketball experts’ advice and movement training, Wong said. This point, it’s important to “find out what an actor’s strengths and w eaknesses are related to the topic and maximize your potential.” From this, they’ll know who has “ball-handling skills and who needs to learn a little bit learn.”

Basketball lingo fills the script, so the actors needed to watch videos to understand the basketball moves that are described in the play. Although, Wong said, “we live in an age now when you can learn anything at all” by searching on a cellphone, but he wanted to do better than that.

“San Francisco is a great basketball town,” he said, and so while the game isn’t played on stage, basketball has to be portrayed “theatrically and with style and with a certain kind of economy.” Staging basketball is one of the play’s exciting challenges and it’s a challenge being taken up by many theater companies. Wong rated it as one of the top 10 new plays hitting the stage this year.

As director, Wong enjoys watching every moment of the play. When he was in the play, he missed certain bits because he was concentrating on his role.

This time, it comes down to his vision. Because Wong had just begun rehearsals, he was observing the chemistry between the actors and developing his own vision.

“This is the first production I’ve done that’s had an Asian American director,” he said. “My point of view of Lauren’s writing and of Lauren is informed by me being Asian American and her being Asian American.”

Other directors might not feel right away or be able to access that right away, he said. For example, he said, “if a character in the play is Asian American and someone says something vaguely racist to that person, anybody can understand what the response can be, but I know what it feels like.” While a non-Asian American director might not necessarily have that immediacy and have to reach for it.

Wong said the actors’ interaction changes the feel of the play.

“I remember when I did the play, we did this whole section of the dialogue where I said a line rather introspectively and today the actor said it more aggressively,” he said.

He said the actor in question “quite successfully landed the line.”

Minor things like that add up, but Wong wanted to clarify, “I don’t think any of the directors made any big mistakes or did anything wrong.”

“He brings more of an Asian-American perspective” and better understands “the complexity of being Asian American, specifically being Chinese American” and what that means about going to China.

In China, Wong said, “I don’t feel like I’m home when I’m there; I don’t feel like I’m greeted with open arms as an ABC—American-born Chinese.” The culture of China is different from the United States and Wong said he felt alienated.

Being at the Pasadena Playhouse, however, is a sort of homecoming for Wong. Many years ago, in about 1986, he was in a musical at the Playhouse. The same year, he was in a play produced by the oldest Asian-American theater company in the country: East-West Players.

“A Great Leap” is a co-production between East-West and the Playhouse.

“I have a real soft spot for these two theaters because of that” and at this point in his life, directing at the Playhouse is “really meaningful and nostalgic.”

Wong also has fond memories of the area for other reasons. Filming the 1991 Steve Martin movie, “Father of the Bride,” was in San Marino. By then, Wong had already won a Tony Award (1988) for “M. Butterfly,” a play that dealt with China in a sociopolitical way.

Knowing the demographics of East Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley, there’s obviously an AsianAmerican audience to be served who may be “starved for content.” Wong said he believes Yee’s play is a rare find that serves the Asian and American communities without selling out the Asian part.

“A Great Leap” is a crowd-pleaser and moving.

“Those things don’t always go together,” Wong noted. But that’s what makes this “a perfect play for the community.”

“The Great Leap”
Various times Wednesday, November 6, to Sunday, December 1
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena
Tickets are $25 to $92
626-356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org