By May S. Ruiz
‘The Great Leap,’ Lauren Yee’s beautifully woven fictional tale that spans the decades encompassing China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ends during the Tiananmen Square student protests, is making its Los Angeles debut from November 6 to December 1, 2019 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Yee’s play centers on an American basketball team in Beijing where the coaches find themselves in a conflict that runs deeper than the strain between the countries and where a young player’s actions become the accidental focus of attention. Presented in partnership with East West Players, ‘The Great Leap’ is directed by Tony Award winner BD Wong and stars Justin Chien as Manford, Christine Lin as Connie, Grant Chang as Wen Chang, and James Eckhouse as Saul.
I attended the show’s opening last weekend and, because I hadn’t seen it before, I didn’t expect how spectacular it turned out to be. ‘The Great Leap’ is a drama that doesn’t call attention to itself – it is as quietly powerful as it is profoundly moving. And, I think, Grant Chang’s mesmerizing performance is one that will be remembered for years to come.
Chang, who graciously agrees to speak with me about the play, starts our phone conversation by saying that his throat has been bothering him and apologizes in advance that he might be coughing as we chat. Let me forewarn you, though, that this interview contains a few spoilers.
I begin by asking how he got involved with the play and Chang replies, “BD Wong and I are both from New York and he’s a good friend of mine. I had seen his performance in New York and I know that he did it in San Francisco as well. I was really blown away by it – it was such a great role for any Asian American male individual and I thought if I ever had the opportunity to do something like that, I would jump at it. There are very few plays where you’re the lead character and you have so much to say with such heart.
“Months later, BD mentioned he was doing this play and recommended that I audition for it. At first I thought they were only looking for local hires. Nevertheless, I sent in an audition tape which everyone involved saw and decided to take me. While BD and I knew each other, it wasn’t just handed to me. And I wouldn’t feel I earned the part if I didn’t audition for it.”
Describing the character he plays, Chang says, “In many ways, the country or society we grow up in and how we grow up dictate how we feel and think. But at the core of every human being, no matter where they’re from and their upbringing, is yearning for love and the freedom to love. My character grew up during a suppressed time period – a very dark period in China. All he knew was living day to day and surviving by not causing waves; by listening to what he was told to do and how he should behave; and not changing the status quo in any way whatsoever. And that’s really hard because as an Asian-American, those aren’t my circumstances. While developing the character wasn’t too difficult, it was really depressing at times to suppress all my feelings and all that emotion to fit in his shoes.”
I ask Chang his biggest challenge and what was fun in playing this role. “When we first started rehearsals, it was hard not to break down,” he reveals. “I thought ‘Oh my God, how can I do this every night, eight times a week?’ That, and also memorizing all the lines in a short amount of time were the hardest thing. I would sit with one of the stage managers and drill the lines over and over in my head for hours on end to get comfortable enough to tell the story.
“However, once I got over that initial hurdle, I was able to get into the storytelling aspect. It’s truly a wonderful project and every night we’re on stage is a different experience depending on the energy of the audience and how we deliver our lines. I have the most fun in the scenes I share with James Eckhouse, who plays Saul. The more genuine and more fun it is for us translates really well to the whole experience. I think we take the audience on that same ride and joy. The feeling is infectious.”
“This cast is really amazing. When I first met them, we bonded quite quickly. Everyone got along and that’s so rare. The Pasadena Playhouse has been so wonderful and BD is a great director. I’m so happy about how it all turned out. Every day I get to perform it and make people cry – that makes me happy, however strange that sounds.”
Chang’s amazing performance is all the more impressive as it doesn’t reflect who he is. He remarks, “Wen Chang is so different from who I am so I had to dig deep to find him. Obviously, my parents and my culture influenced my depiction of my character. I grew up in New York city’s Chinatown so it wasn’t hard for me to connect because I’d met individuals who had that experience. Kids nowadays can’t always communicate well with their parents because of the generation gap. But I also learned from that and that helped me in building this character. However, the stoicism that my character has is intrinsic in Asian culture even to this day – we get too embarrassed to openly show emotion.”
BD has played the character twice but audiences who have watched it will see a different Wen Chang. “BD’s portrayal of the character wasn’t the same as mine,” Chang notes. “He was fantastic and wonderful, so much so that I wanted to do the play. At the core of it, we understand who the character is and where he comes from. Growing up as Chinese-Americans knowing our history, we can totally relate to it. But as individuals, I think our approach is probably quite different – just like everybody else and every person you meet in life. So we have to connect to what makes us unique and bring that out in the character. When he directed me, it wasn’t about him telling me how to do it because he had done it. It was about giving me the opportunity to find the character on my own. And I think that’s also what makes it so special to all of us because we really worked so hard and diligently to do a play that had such great meaning and emotional connection to the audience in many different ways.”
The playwright incorporated in the story a real event which is forever etched in the world’s collective memory. I ask if that affected his portrayal of the character and Chang responds, “At the end of the play Lauren Yee writes, ‘It’s Wen Chang, or it could be anyone else. More than the politics of it, it is more about how an individual can step forward, be brave, and own up to your life, instead of letting all the other factors and noise stop you from living the life you want to live.’ So for Wen Chang, who was just standing his entire life, that moment was about taking his turn instead of being suppressed. He knew it was a decision and moment that meant giving up his freedom, however little he had of it, and his own life. Even though it’s a very sad ending, it’s still such a beautiful ending. It was a moment of bravery and sacrifice.
“I would like the audience to leave with the notion that we all have one life and we have to live that life to the fullest. There’s a lesson to be learned just as the character learned it and made the choice. And it was the right choice; it was a beautiful choice. To me, it’s not how many years you live, it’s what we do with whatever time we have that matters.”
“As an actor, I want people to feel and to think about life. However one is affected by our play, it’s an effect because it makes the wheels turn in their head. And it can go in any direction they want to and that expands their thought process. A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect it to end that way’, or ‘I was so moved.’ And it begs the question, ‘Why are you moved?’ ‘Why are you feeling that way?’ And that’s something they would have to answer, not me. I have done my job as an actor because I’ve moved them,” concludes Chang.
You don’t have to be Chinese American to feel Wen Chang’s pain when he, at last, lays bare his soul. In his last monologue, the profound torment which was hidden beneath his stoicism pours out, albeit in restrained anguish. Chang’s heart-rending portrayal of a man who ultimately breaks away from a lifetime of blind obedience to finally claim himself is supremely magnificent.