Round House Theatre mixes basketball, Chinese politics in ‘The Great Leap’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Great Leap' (Part 1)

Get ready for a little basketball, some global politics and a fun night out at the theater.

Round House Theatre stages “The Great Leap” in Bethesda, Maryland through Dec. 5.

“There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot and discoveries made,” Actor Randy Nguyen Ta told WTOP. “It’s a basketball play; it’s a story about the coaches and players; it’s about Chinese history; and there’s a lot of themes of purpose and family.”

Set in 1989, the University of San Francisco basketball team travels to China for a “friendship game” as high school star Manford pesters coach Saul for a spot on the team.

“My character is Manford,” Ta said. “He is a very reckless, rambunctious kind of guy, does things without thinking first. He’s a very straight arrow and doesn’t know when to give up.”

They land in Beijing alongside Chinese coach Wen Chang in a premise inspired by playwright Lauren Yee’s own father’s experiences playing basketball overseas in China.

“This play was inspired by her dad playing basketball with his friends,” Ta said. “They went to China for this tournament series. They were playing against the best of the best teams in China, so their team got destroyed, game after game, city after city, but she thought it was a very interesting premise, then tied it into history and made this very beautiful play.”

Yee weaves in sociopolitical commentary involving the Tiananmen Square uprising.

“It’s a part of China’s history that China actually has scrubbed from their history books, so a lot of folks in China don’t actually know about what happened,” Ta said. “It was a huge protest led by students in 1989. … They wanted freedom of speech, they wanted democracy, and things escalated very bad and the government forced them out.”

Assistant Director Ashley Mapley Brittle saw the competing versions of history play out.

“[She] was studying abroad in a classroom with two students from China,” Ta said. “A person from outside the city was telling the class about all this history about Tiananmen Square. A person inside the city was rebuking it like, ‘There’s no way that could have happened!’ … Their world was falling apart of how noble and clean China’s history was.”

Ta said he himself didn’t learn about Tiananmen Square growing up in Minnesota, where he initially studied biology at the University of Minnesota but felt drawn toward theater.

“I went to L.A. for an acting showcase … and decided to leave the University of Minnesota and move to New York City,” Ta said. “I went to Rutgers in New Jersey, fast forward to during the pandemic … I was doing virtual readings for some plays and one was directed by Jen Chang. She emailed me saying, ‘Hey, I’m doing auditions for a play in D.C.'”

He joins a four-person cast starring a mix of national talent and familiar local faces.

“We’ve got Grant [Chang], who plays Wen Chang, he’s actually done this role before at the Pasadena Playhouse and actually won an award,” Ta said. “Eric [Hissom] plays Saul, he’s been a working actor for a long time, I believe a few productions at Round House. … Lois [Shih] plays Connie, she is a current MFA acting student … at the University of San Diego.”

Shih reunites with her University of San Diego acting teacher Jennifer Chang, who directs “The Great Leap” with creative visual approaches to a globe-trotting basketball tale.

“We have a revolve — we call it the doughnut — just a ring that rotates for transitions,” Ta said. “There’s lots of moving tiles, but we’re also using a projector that’s able to bring lots of images and displays on the tiles. The projection designer and light designer just created a beautiful image. It really will take you everywhere we’re trying to take you.”

Just don’t expect to see a physical basketball hoop.

“It’s more abstract,” Ta said. “Our director made a very interesting point: in plays there’s a thing called ‘Chekhov’s gun’ where if there’s a gun written into the play, it’s got to be used. So in this play, there will not be an actual shot of a basketball going into a hoop, literally speaking, but it’s definitely taking the more abstract and stylistic approach.”

Attendees must provide proof of vaccination and wear masks indoors.

If you can’t attend, you can watch it virtually on demand starting Nov. 26.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Great Leap' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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