For 'The Great Leap' playwright, family is a generation map

Photo gallery: The Great Lap Opening Night:

The making of 'The Great Leap'

Photos from opening night of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Great Leap’ on Feb. 9, from backstage before the show through the afterparty. To see more, click on the image above to be taken to our full Flickr photo gallery. Lauren Yee’s world-premiere play performs through March 11. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Lauren Yee draws inspiration for new play from her father and his 1980s international basketball odyssey in China  

By Douglas Langworthy
Denver Center Literary Manager

Every family has stories that get passed down through the years, often taking on mythic proportions. For playwright Lauren Yee, one such story she grew up with was her father’s trip to China to play basketball in the 1980s. “It was family lore from a very young age,” she said. “I knew that the trip had been a very large part of his life before he had kids.”

Larry Yee, Lauren’s father, traveled with a basketball team to play “friendship games” in China in the period after the Cultural Revolution. Larry was born in San Francisco and this was his first time visiting the homeland of his parents. His international journey became the loose storyline of Lauren’s play The Great Leap.

One part of the story that Lauren was curious about was the idea of being Chinese-American and going to China to represent America. “Who do you root for?” she said. “Do you root for the people who have the same citizenship as you? Do you root for the people who look like you? Are you ever torn?”

Yee didn’t know a lot about China and basketball going into the project, so she needed to do her research. Her primary source was her father, of course — she loved listening to his stories about the trip. In addition, she attended some pro games. She talked to players. She also spoke with a professor from China at the University of Denver who shared his experiences growing up. “I got a window into what an ordinary person’s life was like growing up in China in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Yee said. 

Lauren Yee Quote. Photo by John MooreShe studied basketball and became consumed by the big philosophical ideas behind the game. “One idea that I found very helpful,” she said, “was that basketball is all about creating space for yourself on the court. That every pass and every fake and every dribble is made with the intent of losing your defender long enough for you to have a chance to make a shot. And I think that has parallels for our everyday lives — everyone in this world goes about their lives trying to make space for themselves that they can call their own.”

(Photo at right of Lauren Yee by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

She was surprised to discover that basketball has a long history in China. “Even though it wasn’t professionalized until the mid-’90s, basketball has had a very long love affair with China, the way it’s had with America,” she said.

Yee’s father inspired another one of her plays, King of the Yees, based on family history, sort of. “A lot of this is true,” the play’s inscription reads, “but a lot of it is only kind of true. Just like the stories your father once told you as a child.”

Set in San Francisco, Yee folds herself and her father into the middle of this meta-theatrical play, so there is an actor playing an actor playing Larry and an actor playing an actor playing Lauren, as well as two actors playing the “real” versions of each of them. 

After Larry Yee saw King of the Yees and attended a reading of The Great Leap, he turned to Lauren and asked if she was done with him. “I think that’s enough about me,” he told her.

Lauren isn’t bothered by seeing herself portrayed on stage: “I know by making myself a character I’ve immediately theatricalized it. What I am interested in is someone else’s interpretation of that particular character in those circumstances.” 

“It was in the play’s DNA from the first scene to set you up to love my father, Larry,” she said, “and be disappointed to find out that this play is about Lauren. I set the Lauren character up for being a bit roasted in this play.”

When asked to describe her writing process, Yee said: “I start writing as soon as I come up with a world I find interesting but don’t completely understand, and a character voice that I find really compelling. Usually if I spend enough time in that world with those voices then I am led to some sort of plot and general structure. With The Great Leap, I immediately heard Manford (the central character) and also heard Saul, his coach. 

“I go into the writing process like an audience member, I don’t know why these characters want what they want yet, but usually, after a couple of drafts, I stumble upon things. So for me, a lot of things that happen in the play were things that I did not know at the very beginning of the writing process. I think in order for the audience to be surprised in a play, I need to be surprised while I am writing.”

And who doesn’t love a surprise?

Douglas Langworthy is the Denver Center’s Literary Manager and resident Dramaturg. 

Playwright Lauren Yee’s works include ‘Ching Chong Chinaman,’ ‘The Hatmaker’s Wife,’ Hookman,’ ‘In a Word,’ ‘King of the Yees,’ ‘Samsara’ and ‘The Tiger Among Us.’ ‘The Great Leap,’ which was commissioned by DCPA Theatre Company as part of its new-play development program, will go on to the Seattle Repertory Theatre following its Denver debut.

Video: Your first look at The Great Leap:

Video by David Lenk for the DCPA NewsCenter.

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

Bonus coverage: Five pieces of fun insider basketball info:

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The DCPA Theatre Company’s world premiere play The Great Leap coincides with the 50th year of professional basketball in Denver. In honor of the play, and Denver’s storied basketball past, we offer five things you might want to know about the game or its history before you attend:

NUMBER 1JeremyLinLinsanity! Lauren Yee has dedicated her play “to all the Jeremy Lins (on and off the court).” Who’s Jeremy Lin? The first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to ever play in the NBA, for one. Lin came out of nowhere in 2012 to lead an unexpected winning streak with the lowly New York Knicks, which generated a fleeting global craze known as “Linsanity.” Lin, who now plays for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, was the iconic underdog overachiever. Unfortunately, he is sitting out the entire current season with a ruptured patella tendon.

NUMBER 2DenverRocketsLogo2Denver’s India.Arie connection. The The play is set in 1971 and ’89. In 1971, the Denver Nuggets were still the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association, and they were led by a promising young guard named Ralph Simpson, who would go on to play in seven all-star games. Today he’s best known as the father of Grammy Award-winning soul singer India.Arie, who lived in Denver until she was 13. In 1989, the Nuggets, now of the NBA, were coached by Doug Moe. And — speaking of talented hoops progeny — Moe’s granddaughter, Lyndie Moe, visited Denver in November as Maureen in the 20th anniversary tour of RENT.

NUMBER 3Pick and RollNo, not ‘pick your nose!’ One bit of common basketball lingo that comes up in the play is an offensive play called the “pick and roll.” That’s when you have one player holding the ball face-to-face with a defender, until a teammate comes and essentially blocks the defender off on one side. That frees the player with the ball to make a move to the basket or dump it back to his teammate who “rolls” behind him and heads for the basket.

Read more: Our complete interview with Lauren Yee

NUMBER 4You might want to watch this. At one point in The Great Leap, Connie urges her cousin Manford to join her at the TV for the end of an NBA playoff game, and it’s a well-chosen one: The series finale between Chicago and Cleveland on May 7, 1989. Manford doesn’t want to watch, and misses what has come to be known in NBA lore as simply “The Shot”: Michael Jordan’s buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo.  

John Moore: Growing Up Nuggets Defined a Childhood

NUMBER 5David ThompsonBefore Michael Jordan, there was “The Skywalker,” and he played for Denver. David Thompson once scored 73 points in a single game. He had a 44-inch leap, and in 1975, he was the highest-paid player in the history of team sports. Thompson and Julius Erving put on such a show in the first Slam-Dunk Contest at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game in Denver that the NBA later adopted it as its own. If not for off-the-court problems that cut his career short, fans no doubt would still speak of Thompson in the same breath with Jordan.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. His father, Ralph Moore, covered professional basketball in Denver from its inception to his retirement in 1983.

Selected previous coverage of The Great Leap:
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

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

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