There are plays that entertain. There are plays that move their audiences. And if the theatre goer is fortunate, the spectacle they are watching will do both. Frequently drawing inspiration from real life events, the playwrites and the actors alike have the capacity to bring history alive on stage. They hold the audience captive within their narrative, bringing to light things long forgotten.
Tank Man (also known as the Unknown Protester or Unknown Rebel) is the nickname of an unidentified Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Tiananmen Square massacre. As the lead tank maneuvered to pass by the man, he repeatedly shifted his position in order to obstruct the tank’s attempted path around him. The incident was filmed and smuggled out to a worldwide audience. Internationally, it is considered one of the most iconic images of all time. Inside China, the image and the events leading up to it are still subject to heavy state censorship.
Enter The Great Leap, this season’s opener at Chicago’s own Steppenwolf Theatre. Known for its edgy repertoire, it is no surprise that this theater opted to stage the play about Tank Man, his fictional backstory. Steppenwolf tries to move its audiences, to shock them into feeling and seeing the world through a new lens. You might think this play is about basketball. You would be wrong. Basketball is just the outer shell. And once the viewer grasps the enormity of the message, there is no turning back. I cried, remembering anew all the lives lost behind the Iron Curtain.
When an American basketball team travels to Beijing amidst tensions of the late 80s, past relationships collide with present day revelations. Witty and weighty, this Chicago premiere explores cultural barriers, political risks and personal sacrifice. Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap is sure to be compelling to basketball fans, history buffs and everyone who has ever had a dream. Pointed, sharp and painful, The Great Leap moves at a neck-breaking pace. It is raw and physical and bathed in political history. It is a ride not for the faint of heart, and while wildly entertaining, it stands to remind us all that history repeats itself.
“Growing up, my father dominated the basketball courts of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and in the 1980s, his legendary game won him a spot on a friendship team headed to a newly open China to play a series of exhibition games against the best teams in the People’s Republic. That nugget of his history formed the inspiration for my play The Great Leap nearly 40 years later,” shared Lauren Yee. “I’m thrilled to be back in Chicago, which has become the most warm and welcoming artistic home imaginable, and with director Jesca Prudencio, who is a bold, gutsy new visionary I think Chicago will fall in love with.”
Director Jesca Prudencio adds, “Lauren’s thrilling language in The Great Leap is fast-paced, high-stakes, and full of energy, just like a basketball game. In our production, we will create an experience that is not only theatrical, but athletic in every aspect.”
The Great Leap, imminently worth the price of admission, is now playing. It is a play you must see. I hope it moves you, and shatters you, as it did me. The story of courage and determination, and a not so gentle reminder of history’s ugly underbelly, The Great Leap demonstrates that from our “now” to the events of “then” is really no leap at all…
Steppenwolf Theatre is located at 1650 N. Halsted in the heart of Chicago’s Clybourn Corridor. Click here for tickets.
The Local Tourist’s ticket to the press opening of The Great Leap courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre.
Photos: Michael Brosilow