'The Great Leap' prepares for big bound to Seattle

by John Moore | Mar 07, 2018
Kristin Leahey and Lauren Yee. Photo by John Moore

'The Great Leap' Dramaturg Kristin Leahey and playwright Lauren Yee at the opening-night celebration in Denver. The play next transfers to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Dramaturg, playwright talk hoops as The Great Leap prepares to leave Denver and visit the Great Northwest

The DCPA Theatre Company's world-premiere staging of The Great Leap has its final Denver performances this weekend, but the play is just starting its creative life. After closing on Sunday (March 11), it packs up with its cast, creatives and scenery intact and moves to the Seattle Repertory Theatre for a run starting later this month.

The play, set in San Francisco and China, follows a scrappy young Asian-American kid who talks his way onto the University of San Francisco basketball team that is about to embark on a series of “friendship” games in China, which is in the throes of the post-Cultural Revolution era. Personal and international politics collide like Jordan driving to the hoop against Shaq. The story was inspired by events from playwright Lauren Yee's  father’s real experiences. 

Kristin Leahey and Lauren Yee Quote. Photo by John MooreSeattle Rep dramaturg Kristin Leahey, who has been a key team member in the development of the play since it was first introduced at the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit, sat down with Yee for a Q&A about the play:

Kristin Leahey: Lauren, who did you write The Great Leap for?

Lauren Yee: My dad. Growing up, my father, Larry Yee, played basketball –  every day, all night, on the asphalt courts and rec center floors of San Francisco, Chinatown. It was the only thing he was good at. He was never good enough that he was going to play for the NBA or even at the college level, but for a 6-foot-1 Chinatown kid from the projects, he was good. Really good. I know this because even today, people still stop him on the street and try to explain to me what a legend he was. They tell me his nickname — Spider — his position — center — and his signature move — the reverse jump shot. Then they will tell me about China. My dad's first trip to China was in the '80s playing a series of exhibition games against China's top teams. At their first game, my dad and his American teammates faced off against a Beijing team of 300-pound 7-footers who demolished my dad's team. It was the first of many slaughters. My dad doesn't play anymore, but you can see how his head is still in the game. Sometimes, he'll walk up to tall young men at checkout counters, parking lots, and sporting events, and ask them if they've ever considered playing basketball. And it doesn't matter what they say: he'll start coaching them on the game right then and there. So while this play is not my father's story, it's a story like it.

For playwright Lauren Yee, family is generation map

Kristin Leahey: Did you know a lot about basketball before working on this play?

Lauren Yee: Despite my father’s history with the game, I actually knew very little, so I got to apprentice myself to this whole new world. And using basketball as a means to explore China-America relations turned out to be an incredibly apt metaphor. China has played basketball almost as long as America has; it’s the most popular sport in China, the only western sport never previously banned by the Chinese government.

Kristin Leahey: As you have been developing The Great Leap, you have also been working on two other incredible plays, among many others, The King of the Yees and Cambodian Rock Band.  What do you see is the connection with these works? 

Kristin Leahey and Lauren Yee 800. Photo by John MooreLauren Yee: King of the Yees, which had its Northwest premiere at A.C.T. last September, is a love letter to Chinatown and my real-life relationship with my dad. Cambodian Rock Band is also a father/daughter story, a play with music about a Cambodian American young woman’s discovery of her father’s secret past as the bassist for a rock band during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Along with The Great Leap, these plays form a kind of trilogy, about ordinary people intersecting in extraordinary places in history.  Each play reveals the hidden histories that lived alongside each other and that you would have never unexpected (basketball and Communism, rock bands and genocide). Seeing these plays through to production has revealed to me the breadth and depth of the Asian American acting community. Each play requires specific, extraordinary talent, and gives actors the chance to be so many different things on stage: funny, virtuosic, heartbreaking, and versatile –  something that Asian American actors frequently do not get to do. I feel if nothing else, one of my proudest accomplishments is creating roles worthy of today’s Asian-American actors.

(Pictured above right: 'The Great Leap' Dramaturg Kristin Leahey and playwright Lauren Yee talk at a public forum to discuss the play with Denver Center audiences. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

Kristin Leahey: Can you share with us about your writing process? 

Lauren Yee: I start writing even before I know what I’m writing about. I can sketch out the pieces of the plays — for example, the setting, the characters, the language — fairly quickly. Most of the writing process — or rewriting process — is me figuring out how these pieces best fit together. My intuitions are rarely wrong, but it usually takes me a very long time to figure out why these particular characters are in these particular situations. In fact, in The Great Leap, I didn’t figure out one of the key plot points until very late in the writing. I’m also incredibly motivated by collaboration with others. One of my favorite things to do is enter a week-long workshop with the goal of mapping out a brand new play or pushing a half-finished piece of writing forward. I have a great respect for actors and directors, and so the thought of them having to wait for me to complete a scene makes me churn out work so much faster than I could by myself. And once I’ve nailed the characters and circumstances, I’ll go back to see where I got things right (or not) and fill in all the gaps. For me, research comes late in the process.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Kristin Leahey: You’ve spent a lot time in Seattle developing your plays.  Can you share what you love about the city and the Seattle theatre scene?

Lauren Yee: I have never seen a city hungrier for new work than Seattle. The joy that Seattle audiences harbor for new work is incredibly motivating; they will show up for readings with an inquisitiveness that you don’t always see in other cities. It’s also an inspiring place to think about story. There’s so much unexpected and unexplored history in Seattle. And every time I come to Seattle, I’m floored by the layers I continue to unearth.

 Kristin Leahey, Ph.D., is Director of New Works for the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Production photos: The Great Leap

The Great Leap Photos from 'The Great Leap,' opening Friday (tonight) and performing through March 11 in the Ricketson Theatre. To see more photos, click on the image above to be taken to our full gallery. Photos by Adams VisCom.  

The Great Leap: Ticket information
GreatLeap_show_thumbnail_160x160When an American college basketball team travels to Beijing for an exhibition game in 1989, the drama on the court goes deeper than the strain between their countries. For two men with a past and one teen with a future, it’s a chance to stake their moment in history and claim personal victories off the scoreboard. American coach Saul grapples with his relevance to the sport, while Chinese coach Wen Chang must decide his role in his rapidly changing country. Tensions rise right up to the final buzzer as history collides with the action on the court.

  • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances Through March 11
  • Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $30
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

Selected previous coverage of The Great Leap:
Lauren Yee: “This play would not exist without the Denver Center'
Video: First look at The Great Leap, and five things we learned at Perspectives
For The Great Leap playwright Lauren Yee, family is a generation map
Five pieces of fun hoops history to know, like: What's a pick and roll?
Five things we learned at first rehearsal, with photos
Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line
Vast and visceral: Theatre Company season will include The Great Leap

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John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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