Play starring South Philly thespians explores 1970s-1980s communist China

The Great Leap leads up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square ambush with subtle hints to today’s global political climate.

Using basketball as a metaphor, InterAct Theatre Company’s production of “The Great Leap” explores the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the political and social strifes proceeding the violent event. The play features a couple of South Philly residents. Above: East Passyunk Square residents Scott Greer, who portrays Saul, with Justin Jain who plays Wen Chang. (Photo courtesy of InterAct Theatre Company)

Exactly 30 years ago to the very day, tumult erupted in Beijing, as thousands of pro-democracy protesters were ambushed by assault rifles and tanks around the city’s Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army executed the brutality to suppress the growing population of demonstrators, most of whom were students, dissenting the communist regime.

This seldom-remembered piece of history, and the political strife preceding it, serve as the focal points of InterAct Theatre Company’s current production of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap.

“I think a lot of Americans, they sort of vaguely know…there was so much misinformation and control over the story as it was happening,” said Passyunk Square actor Scott Greer, who portrays the role of Saul, an American basketball coach leading a “friendship” game in China. “And it’s been years, and there’s not a lot of clarity about it.”

Set between the years 1971 and 1989, the critically-acclaimed play follows a young Chinese-American man, Manford Lum, from San Francisco as he embarks with a college basketball team set to play on this goodwill-mission game in China.

The show utilizes both the art of the stage and the game of basketball to dually examine the United States’ tangled relationship with the Communist Party of China and the post-Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

(InterAct’s) mission is constantly evolving: social, political theater. What that meant when InterAct was founded is very different from what it might be now both in terms of content and form,” said Passyunk Square actor Justin Jain, who portrays the role of  Wen Chang, a Beijing university basketball coach. “And, the latter is really exciting to me and, I think, relates a little bit to our play in the magical realism aspect of it.”

Flip-flopping throughout an 18-year timeline, the entire show essentially leads up to one massive basketball game scheduled on the eve of the June Fourth Incident – also known as the Tiananmen Square protests.

Basketball, the actors say, evokes an allegory for various models of government, including communism and capitalism.

As the play progresses throughout time, audiences analyze differing cultural and political essences of two countries.

(Photo courtesy of InterAct Theatre Company)

“(The basketball game) is a giant metaphor for everything that has happened,” Jain said. “So, it never quite hits on the nose, but you get a sense of what happened then through tempo, through small things we allude to and then there’s a twist at the end.”

In the early 1970s, the actors describe the philosophy of basketball in China as more so deferential and passive, which, perhaps, alludes to a more communist state. However, as the Chinese engage with the Americans, a more aggressive approach to the sport is seen, which could suggest capitalistic principles.

“A lot of it is much more about philosophy,” Greer said. “And the writing is very clear about the American perspective of, ‘It’s always your turn. Don’t wait for someone to give you your turn.’ It’s sort of about aggression and individual achievement as opposed to group-thinking and deference to the others.”

While audiences won’t see full-fledged layups or slam dunks on stage, basketball continually acts as the thematic backdrop of the play.

Although the production chronicles the United State’s relationship with communist China in the 1970s and 1980s, the actors say the show possesses present-day social and political undercurrents.

During the Tiananmen Square incident, protesters opposed the country’s lack of freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – conditions that have arguably been appearing in nations across the globe.

“In an age when we are seeing more and more sort of populist, authoritarian regimes…I think that you have to be ever vigilant of oppressive regimes because they don’t go away,” Greer said. “Lately, they’re on the rise.”

While the show primarily probes at circumstances on a societal scale, it simultaneously zeroes in on the individual’s experience amidst such governmental states – an idea ambiguous to any country in any point of history.

This allows questions such as, what would one do in the face of social and political injustice? Or, to what extremes would one go to be a player in the system, and, ultimately, if that system fails, what are you willing to put on the line?

“That’s a deep cut,” Jain said. “But, it’s in there.”


Info: For a 20-percent discount on tickets to The Great Leap, use the code REVIEW20. It can be used online at www.interact, over the phone by calling 215-568-8079 or in person at the box office. To purchase tickets, visit The show runs through June 23 at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. 

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