Tommy Bo in The Great Leap.
Tommy Bo in The Great Leap. Alec Lugo

As it became a global phenomenon, basketball helped open the world.

Introduced to China around 1895, it was eventually chosen as one of the country’s two national sports during the Great Leap Forward—a brutal five-year period starting in 1958 which preceded Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In 1979, China was first introduced to American NBA culture via exhibition games between two of its teams (the Chinese national team and the Bayi Rockets) and the Washington Wizards (FKA the Bullets). By 1992, the NBA allowed its contracted players to participate in the Olympics, the same year China's women's team took home the silver medal. This cross-pollination laid the groundwork for the culture that produced greats like Yao Ming, Li Nan, and Yi Jianlian.

Lauren Yee, the second most-produced playwright of the 2019-20 season, pulled from these histories and the stories of her father for her eighth script, The Great Leap. Directed by Zi Alikhan and staged at the Armory in a joint production by Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre, The Great Leap is a surprisingly emotional story, weaving a history of high-stakes personal drama and international intrigue. Alikhan commands a buzzy cast in a show that could easily bring sports fans to the stage (and non-jocks as well). Anyone who regrets missing Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band when it was staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 should not repeat their mistake.

The Great Leap opens as a letter sent from Wen Chang (Kenneth Lee, Alan Yang on HBO’s Search Party) to a person yet unknown. The perspective shifts from the summer of the Tiananmen Square Massacre to a “friendship game” between Beijing and UC Berkeley 18 years prior. Wen’s letter notes a cycle of 18 years, from that first year of Western adulthood when a player’s life truly begins, to another 18 years when their career invariably ends due to their American lifestyle of going hard nonstop.

Wen and China learned modern Western basketball from a brassy American coach, Saul (Darius Pierce, Nicolas Cage’s sketchy friend Edgar in 2021's Pig), though they never forgot his boorish insults or ballsy attitude. The fire in Saul’s belly is nearly extinguished by 1989, until he’s relentlessly pursued by Manford (Tommy Bo), a mouthy 17-year-old with a near-even mix of attitude and talent. With inside help from his college-age cousin Connie (Sami Ma), Manford clinches his spot as the first Chinese-American player to represent the US abroad, where, as Connie warns him, he navigates the differences of a country that’s infinitely more complex than what he's accustomed to.

The stakes are high and the consequences dire for all of The Great Leap’s players. Failure comes with disastrous consequences, and Yee’s writing ensnares the audience in her characters’ fates. Some developments might be predictable for casual viewers of sports movies, but it’s the important details that Yee sets up in the earliest scenes and reveals at the very end that build the suspense. This is especially evident in the rapid-fire, split-perspective soliloquy climax, in which Bo's pantomimed, slow-motion dribbling is as graceful and wavey as modern dance.

Fans of cocky teen boys will find Manford’s brattiness worth the price of admission alone, as he lays down his pride while processing his late mother’s connection to basketball. The revelatory moments are tearjerkers, especially when the choices being faced seem impossible for comfortable Western audiences—though rote to those regularly facing political violence and instability.

Some audience members would benefit from a couple of warnings: The Great Leap features a short strobe sequence, a camera flash with audio loud enough to qualify as a jump-scare, and historically-faithful, anti-Asian racism which elicited gasps from the audience. How does the audience handle a considerately, tightly crafted tale of contrasting masculinities, and the emotional realization of mortality on the court, from there? The ball’s in their court.

Portland Center Stage at the Armory, 128 NW 11th, Wed-Sun through Feb 13, various times, $25-$75, tickets and more info here