Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line

Video above by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk and Senior Arts Journalist John Moore.

In this daily, five-part series for the DCPA NewsCenter, we will introduce you to the plays and playwrights featured at the Denver Center’s 2017 Colorado New Play Summit. Over the past 12 years, 27 plays introduced to the Summit have gone to be premiered on the DCPA Theatre Company mainstage season. Next up: Lauren Yee, author of the basketball play Manford at the Line, or The Great Leap.

Chinese-American playwright Lauren Yee
lays it all on the free-throw line

When an American college basketball team travels to Beijing for a “friendship” game in the post-Cultural Revolution 1980s, both countries try to tease out the politics behind this newly popular sport. Cultures clash as the Chinese coach tries to pick up moves from the Americans, and a Chinese-American player named Manford spies on his opponent.

John Moore: What do we need to know about your play?

Lauren Yee: My father grew up in San Francisco Chinatown. And until he had kids,
the only thing he was good at was basketball. I know this because even today, walking around San Francisco, people stop us on the street and say, “I used to play you in basketball!” And as we’re walking away, my dad will smile and say, “Yeah … and I kicked your (bleep).” In the 1980s, he and his American teammates traveled to China to play a series of exhibition games against various teams throughout the country. I asked him, “Did you win?” And he told me, “They demolished us in almost every single game.” I think the first game they played was against Beijing. It was either a high-school or a college team. And my dad was like, “No, joke, Lauren, their players were, like, 7-foot-6. My father is 6-foot-1, and he was the tallest guy on his team. He said, “We would have to tell our teammates when their guy had the ball, because if you were guarding your man, you couldn’t see what he was doing.” I think they only won one game, which was in Hong Kong when the players happened to be closer to 6-feet tall than 7-feet tall. And I think they only won that game by two points.

John Moore: But I bet they could describe the waistbands of their opponents in great detail.

Lauren Yee: Oh yeah. Have you ever seen one of those Mickey Mouse cartoons where Mickey is being chased by a train? That’s how my dad felt: Like Mickey Mouse in China.

Lauren Yee. Photo by  John Moore

John Moore: So how does that turn into a play?

Lauren Yee: I always thought that idea was so interesting of a Chinese-American young man like my father going to the country of his parents for the first time, playing an opponent who looks like him – but not quite.

John Moore: What do we need to know about the title?

Lauren Yee: Manford at the Line begs the question of whose play this is. And it foreshadows what is going to be important further down the line. It’s almost the final play of the game.

John Moore: Your play was originally called Manford from Half Court.

Lauren Yee: Yeah. The final play longer happens at half-court. It happens at the free-throw line, so that necessitated changing the title.

John Moore: The game of basketball has become very global in the past decade, especially in the NBA. But your play takes place in 1989. When did basketball become such a national priority in China?

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Lauren Yee: The interesting thing about that is basketball is the only Western sport that has never been banned in China. I think we Americans think of basketball as a sport that is completely ours. And that whenever go abroad, we are bringing basketball to a different part of the world. But the truth of it is, China has had basketball since the 19th century. American missionaries first brought the game there in the late 1900s. And ever since then, the Chinese have viewed basketball as a symbol of their country. If you think of all the sports out there, basketball is the one in which you can really lay the ideals of communism on top of it. Everyone gets to touch the ball. Everyone is equal in their position. Mao (Tse-tung) was a big, big fan of basketball. Prior to him coming to power in the 1930s, he used to play basketball with his colleagues. I think the shift in the game has just been the professionalization of it. In the 1990s, right after my play takes place, you begin to see the national league in China start up, the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association). That’s been really fascinating because you have players like Yao Ming coming out of the CBA and going to America, but you are also have NBA players like Stephon Marbury coming to China and playing in the CBA. Stephon Marbury is beloved in China.

(Note: Stephon Marbury, now 40, is a two-time NBA All-Star who has played for three Chinese teams since 2010, winning three CBA championships.)

Lauren Yee QuoteJohn Moore: How does the culture clash play out in your story? Because from a very young age, American kids are taught to shoot the ball. And your lead character at one point explains very comically how a Chinese player almost needs permission to shoot.

Lauren Yee: My father told me that Chinese players, as opposed to his team of Americans, did not like to go inside. They didn’t like to get aggressive. They loved to stand back and sink the ball from the 3-point line. I find that sport is always such a great analogy for how a country works and how two countries interact and that space where they rub up against each other and conflict in terms of strategy and styles and priorities. 

John Moore: You have said you main character is not, specifically, your father.

Lauren Yee: No.

John Moore: What does he think about you writing a basketball play inspired by his experiences?

Spotlight: Rogelio Martinez on when world leaders collide

Lauren Yee: I feel like my father is always simultaneously a little mortified and a little delighted by the idea of there being a play about his experiences. I am sure there is a lot about the play that he will say I got wrong. I feel like the biggest difference between my main character and my father is that my father was always celebrated for the great basketball player he was.   

John Moore: What is the tone of your play?

Lauren Yee: My plays tend to be comedies … until they are not. They also tend to be comedies that hopefully show you something in a way you have never seen before. This is a basketball play, but hopefully I am showing you something about the game in a delightful way that you have never seen before.

Lauren Yee 2016 Colorado New Play SummitJohn Moore: Last year, you were a guest here at the Colorado New Play Summit as a commissioned writer for the DCPA Theatre Company. Now you are here as one of the five featured Summit playwrights. What are your thoughts on the Summit?

Lauren Yee: I think the Colorado New Play Summit is such a wonderful playground. The Denver Center supports pieces starting from the inception of a commission and continues after the Summit. I feel like the Denver Center is really invested in telling lots of different types of stories from lots of different perspectives. I also think there is incredible freedom for playwrights to tackle the story any way they want to.

John Moore: Let’s get perfectly real here: If you are anything other than a white male, you are probably underrepresented in the American theatre right now. And as a Chinese-American woman, you are about as under-represented as it gets. But you have broken through and really have gotten the attention of the American theatre. Do you see that as a burden or an obligation or a wide-open opportunity?

Lauren Yee: For me, in order to spend the two or three years needed to follow a story and really see it through to its end, I think it has to be a story that feels personal and urgent and specific enough to me that I think I really am the best person to tell that story. And that I would really love to spend all those years of my life in the room with this idea. Sometimes it boils down to, “This is a story that shares something in my DNA culturally.” And other times, it has nothing to do with that. It can be a burden,  but there is also this joy in being able to tell an audience a story in a way that no one else can tell it.

Lauren Yee QuoteJohn Moore: Obviously gender disparity has been a major topic of conversation in the American theatre for several years. What does it mean to you as a female playwright that the Denver Center is a place with the $1.2 million Women’s Voices Fund?

Lauren Yee: I think the Women’s Voices Fund is such an exciting and vital venture. It makes sure that you are representing the groups that you want to be representing – and then letting them run with it. I may be sponsored by the Women’s Voices Fund, but I am not being told to write a play that stars all women, or has to have some female-specific topic. My play is about a Chinese-American man playing basketball in China. I think the Women’s Voices Fund embraces the multiplicity of views that come with what your gender is, and what your ethnicity is. I am Chinese-American, but part of the joy of my work is that I get to inhabit all of these different worlds.

John Moore: Why is your play the right play at the right time?
Lauren Yee: I think this play is relevant now because it explores the idea that one person can make a difference in the world they live in. It’s also a play about diplomacy. It’s a play about relating to different people from different countries. It is a play about protest. And it is a play about realizing when it is your turn to step up.

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.

Manford at the Line, or The Great Leap
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Josh Brody
Dramaturgy by Kristen Leahey
Manford: Kevin Lin
Saul: Brian Keane
Wen Chang: Francis Jue
Connie: Jo Mei
Stage Directions: Samantha Long

Manford. Photo by John MooreFrancis Jue, left, and Brian Keane in Lauren Yee’s ‘Manford at the Line, Or The Great Leap.’ Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Selected previous coverage of the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit:
2017 Summit welcomes dozens for opening rehearsal
Summit Spotlight: Robert Schenkkan on the dangers of denial
Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line
Summit Spotlight: Rogelio Martinez on when world leaders collide
Summit Spotlight: Donnetta Lavinia Grays on the aftermath of trauma
Summit Spotlight: Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy of a divided America
Record four student writers to have plays read at Summit
DCPA completes field of five 2017 Summit playwrights

The 12th Annual Colorado New Play Summit
Launch Weekend: Feb. 18-19
Festival Weekend: Feb. 24-26
More details:

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