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DramaWatch: A ‘Great Leap’ on the Portland stage

Playwright Lauren Yee returns to Oregon stages with a Center Stage/Artists Rep collaboration; "Thurgood" and "Hedwig" get ready to roll.

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Though the trends may not be as obvious as those on film and television, the big-money mainstream of American culture, fashion and popularity have their cycles in the theater world, too. For instance, one of the markers of success and influence is a given year’s list of the playwrights whose work is being produced most frequently. That Shakespeare fellow always is up there (Theatre Communications Group just leaves Shakespeare out of its counting altogether), but there’s usually some new young gun rising to the top. Lately, Lauren Gunderson has had a strong run. And if not for Covid-19’s decimation of the past couple of theater seasons, Lauren Yee would have been right up there.

Tommy Bo and Sami Ma in Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” at The Armory. Photo: Owen Carey/courtest of Portland Center Stage 

Just looking at Oregon productions, there was – or would have been – several. Yee had a hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 with Cambodian Rock Band, a probing look at social upheaval, personal accountability, love, loyalty and survival, all through the unlikely nexus of a psychedelic counterculture and the murderous Khmer Rouge. That same show was set for a stint at Portland Center Stage in the ill-fated spring of 2020, to be followed a year later – according to the initial announcement of a 2020-’21 season from PCS – by a newly commissioned piece called Young Americans, a father-daughter comedy set during a cross-country drive from our nation’s capital to – where else? – Portland.

Though the pandemic deprived Portland audiences of those slated Yee plays, we get another chance. PCS and Artists Repertory Theatre are co-producing Yee’s The Great Leap, which opens Friday at the Armory.

First produced in 2018 Off-Broadway, at the Atlantic Theater Company, The Great Leap nods in at least two thematic directions with its title, which echoes both the Great Leap Forward (the severe mid-20th century social and economic campaign meant to wrench the People’s Republic of China out of its agrarian past) and one of the facets of athletic prowess in basketball. It might also serve as a reference to a crossing of cultural divides. All three are part of the story Yee braids, inspired in part by her own father’s stories of youthful exploits on the basketball courts of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Instead of Yee’s father, The Great Leap features a Chinatown high-school phenom called Manford Lum, who talks his way onto the San Francisco State college team in 1989, just before a trip to Beijing for a “friendship” game. There, he and his hard-boiled coach, Saul, encounter a Chinese coach, Wen Chang, who years earlier had been an interpreter for Saul on an earlier Chinese visit. Cultural divides and father-figure issues ensue, along with the looming cataclysm of the Tiananmen Square student protests.

“I was interested in looking at a country in the midst of a crisis, this very sharp divide between one generation and the next about the direction China was going,” Yee told the Web site TDF.org. ​​”(T)here’s a kinship between theater and sports, about what happens when a performer or an athlete does something extraordinary and we’re all watching that live. We can recall a moment when we saw another human being do that. It remains with us.” In the Washington Post, she emphasized the sport connection to the work from a more internal perspective. ​​“All the characters are just incredibly insistent on their own point of view,” she said. “There’s a drive to them that, to me, mirrors what it’s like to be in a basketball game. You’re constantly in motion. You’re constantly fighting for the ball. Constantly trying to take your shot.”

The PCS/ART production, directed by Zi Alikhan, features primarily New York-based actors in its cast of four. However, Portland theater fans will be quite familiar with the inimitable local favorite Darius Pierce in the role of Saul. 

The flattened stage

Previews

A theatrical production can be a complex endeavor, with many variables in performance, technical execution, and even atmosphere affecting the end result. All of that can take time to pull together in the optimal way. Normally, here at DramaWatch we wait until the advent of an official opening to include shows. But next week looks to be an especially busy time, with the bounty of virtual presentations in the 2022 Fertile Ground festival coinciding with openings from some of Portland’s major companies. So we’ll make an exception here, and point out that, if you feel inclined, you can go see preview performances (quite likely every bit as polished and pleasurable) of a couple of promising shows. 

Lester Purry as Thurgood Marshall in Geva Theatre’s production of “Thurgood.” Photo courtesy of Goat Factory Media Entertainment.

Thurgood, at Portland Playhouse, originally was scheduled to open in April 2020. George Steven’s 2006 one-man play recounts the life of famed jurist Thurgood Marshall, from a Baltimore childhood to being denied admission to the University of Maryland because of his race, to arguing the landmark desegregation court case Brown v. Board of Education, to a place in history as the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Directed by Lou Bellamy, this production stars Lester Purry, a seasoned veteran of many of the country’s top regional theaters and the centerpiece of August Wilson’s Fences at the Playhouse in 2018.

Not long before Covid-19 pushed Thurgood off the 2020 calendar, Portland Center Stage was enjoying a big hit with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, that gender-pretzel of a rock’n’roll musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. The core team of director Chip Miller and stars Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr. and Ithica Tell return for this remount, no doubt hoping for the same rapturous response from audiences. I, however, remain apprehensive. I love the show itself, but hated Miller’s production, for a long list of reasons outlined in a February 2020 DramaWatch column.

CovidWatch

As SARS-CoV-2 continues to mutate and spread, so do our adaptive responses, in the theater as elsewhere. For example, a recent announcement from Portland Playhouse:

“In response to the rise of the Omicron Covid variant in Oregon, we have made the decision to reduce the capacity of our audience from 110 to 50 until at least February 6th, 2022. This is to give you, our patrons, the space to keep physically distant, whilst also still being able to enjoy this important work in person.”

The theater also is making KN95 masks available for patrons.

Closing

The brief run (eight shows over two weekends) of Duende de Lorca at Milagro ends Sunday afternoon. This bilingual play is company co-founder Dañel Malán’s look at the early career of the Spanish poet/playwright Federico García Lorca.

Sponsor
Oregon Children's Theatre Portland Oregon

Best line I read this week

“Her work is a strong tincture of periods and movements: ancient, medieval, Romantic, Victorian, and modernist. Linear time was her enemy. ‘It is this splitting up of events into an irregular, inconvenient, positively demented time sequence that bitches things up,’ she complained in her journal. ‘Why can’t the relative things happen together, simultaneously or in close sequence?'”

– from an article by Merve Emre in The New Yorker, about the late writer Mary Butts (“once hailed as the English Chekhov”). It reminds me of the concept, espoused by former Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch, of what he calls “blended time” in theater.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.
Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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