Lauren Yee is having a moment. She was the most produced playwright in America the year before Covid shut down U.S. theaters. According to American Theatre Magazine, Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” and “The Great Leap” each had 8 professional productions across the U.S. in the 2019-2020 season, totaling 16 productions, more than any other single playwright.
But in spite of Yee’s popularity throughout the country, theaters in the D.C. region have yet to produce any of her plays.
That will change next week when Round House Theater opens “The Great Leap,” Yee’s 2018 drama about a Chinese American high school student who pushes his way onto a San Francisco basketball team playing in China on the eve of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Uprising.
Don’t be put off if that sounds like a lot of heady material. Yee’s plays — “The Great Leap” included — are often centered on international historical events, but they are also fast-paced, fun stories that have mass appeal because of their endearing, easy-to-watch qualities.
Jennifer Chang, who is directing “The Great Leap” at Round House, shared her thoughts on why Yee’s plays resonate so deeply with American theatergoers.
“Lauren is able to write really complicated things in a very accessible way,” Chang observes. “You don’t need to know anything about the topic going into the play, but you may feel compelled to learn more after you see it.”
By tethering history to her own lived experience, Yee creates funny, likable characters. Take Manford, the high school basketball player at the center of “The Great Leap.”
“Manford is what I lovingly call the Asian bro character,” Chang says. (Think the Josh Chan character on TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”) “Asian men who really like sports is such a common thing in the Asian-American community but that type of character doesn’t get a lot of play on American stages where instead the ‘smart’ Asian is over-represented.”
Chang knows a thing or two about representation. The daughter of Chinese and Filipino immigrants, Chang grew up in San Francisco, where Manford and his coach Saul live in “The Great Leap.”
“The places they reference in the play are all places I know. I’ve really tried to put the community I lived in into the lifeblood of the characters.”
As a female, Asian-American director working in a field still dominated by white men, becoming a theater director was a circuitous road for Chang. After graduating from the MFA Theatre program at the University of California at San Diego, Chang co-founded the well-known Chalk Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles in 2008.
“I had the good fortune to be able to give myself my first directing job when we started Chalk Rep,” she recalls. “I never thought I could be a director because I never saw anyone who looked like me doing it, but work begets work and through word of mouth, I started to get jobs.”
Lauren Yee’s other hugely popular play, “Cambodian Rock Band” will also receive its D.C. premiere in the spring of 2022 at Arena Stage.
“Lauren has a way of welcoming everyone into the theater,” Chang observes.
When “The Great Leap” makes its regional debut at Round House Theatre next week, D.C. theatergoers will finally get their chance to welcome Lauren Yee’s work to their city.
“The Great Leap” at Round House Theatre runs through December 5. To learn more about the show and purchase tickets, visit their site here.
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