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Rising playwright Lauren Yee inspired by her father’s personal experience in Great Leap

By Jana Monji

This weekend, the Pasadena Playhouse will officially open, The Great Leap, a play by the second most-produced playwright in the US for the 2019-2020 season (according to American Theatre Magazine). That playwright, Lauren Yee, is also one of the six Doris Duke artists for 2019 and has another play, Cambodian Rock Band, opening at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego next week.

The play, The Great Leap, is about an interpreter who becomes the coach of the Chinese team and then faces his American mentor and his American team on the basketball court. With only four actors, the play doesn’t present a basketball game in play, but it is suggested.  The play takes its name from the People’s Republic of China’s economic campaign, The Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap had been produced earlier this year at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, hometown of both Yee and one of its stars, Tony Award-winner B.D. Wong who plays the Chinese coach. Before that, Wong has been part of the Atlantic Theater Company production in New York in the same role, but in Pasadena, he will be the director. The play is based on something that happened to Yee’s father. As Yee explained during a recent telephone interview, “My father grew up in San Francisco. Before he had kids, the only thing he was good at was basketball. He got to travel every so often” as a result. But “in 1981, he and his teammates, all Chinese American kids, were part of an exhibition team” that traveled to battle the Chinese national team.

Lauren Yee

When Yee was commissioned by the Denver Center for Performing Arts, understanding what a sports town Denver was, she decided to try writing about this cross-cultural experience. Yee notes, “In 1981, China was open to the West, but it still wasn’t a place that many, many Western tourists had been to yet.” Yee relates, “My father is six-foot-one. He and his team got completely demolished” in the exhibition games. But, Yee says, “I suspect they were brought there to lose” because the Chinese could have “brought an NBA or college team” over.  The 1980s were before Linsanity. “Asians Americans at the NBA-level was still not a thing.” Of her father, she said, “He was really helpful telling me about his experiences.” Her father wasn’t into watching basketball.  “He’s more into baseball.” Unfortunately, there are no videos of those games. On stage, you’ll see “a version of my father; it’s not pretending to be him.”

When the play went to the Atlantic, Wong was Yee’s first choice for the role. “He’s wonderful in TV and film, but his theater work is extraordinary.” Yee was very excited when he said yes because “you know he’s going to kill it.”  Seeing him in both productions, Yee said that the play in San Francisco was amazing because it was like having a “home game” but she added, “He’s beautiful in the role. I never tire of seeing him.” He has such emotional depth, “making that character heartbreakingly human.”

B.D. Wong

In a separate telephone interview, Wong said, “I did play basketball. I was vaguely familiar with basketball but that’s not my entry into the play.” In addition, he noted, “The part actually doesn’t require the actor to play a lot of basketball,” but both of the productions he acted in and this current Pasadena Playhouse-East-West Players co-production that he directs has a basketball expert on board.  Being a veteran of two productions, he did learn about basketball and his approach is that “you always, always, always must feel that you want to learn about the world of the play you are in as much as possible.”  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.”

While Yee  “got schooled enough about basketball” to write the play, she also says “the actors and directors helped me learn about the game” as well. “I can see what’s happening” and understands “the creation of space” and the “spatial awareness and teamwork.”

Yee will be down in Southern California to see both of her productions in Southern California. She looks forward to Wong’s directional vision because he’s so “actor-first.” She notes “He’s also had a history of working with musicals so I think he understand the tempo and rhythm of what’s on the page.” Yee characterizes herself as an author who “hears” her work but is “not good on the visual” elements so she’s “happy with what the actors and creative team bring to the work.”

The Great Leap runs from Nov. 6 to Dec. 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $92. For more information, call  (626) 356-PLAY or visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

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