Manford Lum (Morgan Gwilym Tso) takes a jump shot during a scene rehearsal performance of Perseverance Theatre’s upcoming play “The Great Leap” opening Friday evening. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Manford Lum (Morgan Gwilym Tso) takes a jump shot during a scene rehearsal performance of Perseverance Theatre’s upcoming play “The Great Leap” opening Friday evening. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A look before the ‘Leap’

Previewing Perseverance Theatre’s latest, which blends basketball, Chinese history and identity.

In Perseverance Theatre’s “The Great Leap,” basketball is just a jumping off point.

The Douglas theater’s latest opens Friday and tells a story focused on a promising young Chinese-American boy from San Francisco, Manford Lum (Morgan Gwilym Tso) who finesses his way onto a college basketball team just in time to travel along with the team to Beijing for a “friendship game” led by two coaches with a strained past derived from their clashing cultures.

However, things take a dramatic turn when he enters the country in June 1989, a time of political unrest and during the height of the Tienanmen Square student protests, and he finds himself quickly thrown into a battle far bigger than just a game. Throughout the play, he is forced to grapple with the reality of his identity and history while deciding what choices to make to both win the game and face the painful histories of his past.

Leslie Ishii, artistic director for Perseverance Theatre and director of the show, said exploring racial identities and how people relate to one another is something the play is built upon and was a reason behind the theater’s decision to bring it to Juneau.

“I was looking for something that was cross-racial and we can look at how we relate to each other in different communities and identities,” she said. “How do we relate to each other, how do we deal with issues of our time?”

Despite the play’s focus on basketball, its script largely deviates from just focusing on the game and instead takes a deeper dive into discussing topics such as racism, political unrest and international politics while also exploring individual levels of struggling with identity and culture.

Ishii said what makes the script unique is its connection to real-life events and its strict reliance on using only four characters to develop a narrative out of different facets of their identities. She said coming from a legacy of organized sports in the Japanese community and being an activist for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders people, she was immediately drawn to the play after seeing it for the first time.

“The play has so much meaning for me,” she said. “I think it tries to capture that great leap of China moving away from being a communist country politically to being a democracy and how people were fighting for their rights and their own self-determination during political unrest.”

Tso agreed and said that even though the story deals with a lot of difficult topics, it somehow manages to bring an abundance of humor to the characters despite the situations they are grappling with.

“It’s an incredibly fun show and this has one of the best scripts I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “It’s just a really fun and entertaining play to be a part of — the script really carries itself.”

Tso said what made the play especially fun for him to be a part of was having to learn the physicality of how to act like a basketball player as he had little to no background in the sport before taking on the role. He said preparation included both reading his lines and spending time on the court.

“We literally had basketball practices,” he said, laughing.

Ishii said the show’s focus on basketball was also another reason why the theater decided to choose the show because of Southeast Alaska’s deep roots and connection to the game.

“We know how important basketball is to this community,” she said, laughing.

She encouraged the community to come out to support local theater and said it’s a great way to get out of the house.

“It’s active, it’s funny, it’s got heart — in the middle of winter it’s a great night out,” she said.

Know & Go

What: Perseverance Theatre’s “The Great Leap”

Where: Perseverance Theatre, 913 3rd St., Douglas.

When: Feb. 17 through March 5.

Admission: General admission costs $45.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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