‘The Great Leap’ Tackles Bigger Issues Than Basketball 

Tyler Simahk, Barlow Adamson, and Gary Thomas Ng in The Great Leap at Lyric Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

Award-winning playwright Lauren Yee has skin in the game with her play, ‘The Great Leap,’ now making its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage Company. Her father, a rare 6’1” Asian-American basketball player, was part of the 1981 team the US sent to China for a “friendship game” between Beijing University and the University of San Francisco. The Americans were demolished during the exhibition games.

Yee suspects the team, composed of non-NBA, non-college players, was hand-picked by the Chinese so the Americans would lose. Her father, who recounted his experiences to her as she wrote her play, was very helpful. “On stage, you’ll see a version of my father; it’s not pretending to be him,” Yee says in the program notes.

She sets her drama in 1989, a year that saw rising demonstrations for political and economic reform in Tiananmen Square. Using humor, spicy vernacular and some actual on-stage dribbling sequences, she weaves together an absorbing story while making some astute points about the intersection and consequences of politics, cultural identity and human foibles.

The plot is pretty straightforward.

It is 1989. Manford (an outstanding Tyler Simahk), “the most feared basketball player in Chinatown,” is a pushy and single-minded 17-year-old. The play opens with him confronting the San Francisco University basketball coach, Saul (a first-rate Barlow Adamson), demanding that Saul put him on the team he is taking to China to play in an exhibition match against Beijing University on June 3 and 4.

Saul has heard of Manford, ”the only guy who got thrown out of a game for fighting with his own teammate.” Manford knows a thing or two about Saul, too, and wastes no time striking at Saul’s Achilles’ heel. With an 8-20 losing record, his career is circling the drain. A loss to a Chinese team would finish him. Only Manford can rescue him from this fate.

“I am the most relentless person you ever met,” Manford taunts.

Turns out Coach Saul was at the helm of the team that traveled to Beijing in 1971 to advise a politically appointed amateur, Wen Chang (an outwardly cardboard but inwardly emotive Gary Thomas Ng) about the American game of basketball. This was at the height of the ferocious Cultural Revolution. Wen’s assignment was more about his Communist “rehabilitation” than a perfect job match.

Jihan Haddad, Adamson

Eighteen years later, Saul is headed back for a rematch against Wen. Manford’s mission is to convince Saul that the Americans will lose unless Manford is on the team. He’s better than any point guard Saul has on his SFU roster and he knows what Saul will be facing when he returns to Beijing. “Eighteen years ago, you went as their guest. You’re going back as their enemy,” he warns.

Manford has another reason he needs to return, and that hidden secret drives the ending’s delicious plot twist and would be an unconscionable spoiler to reveal. He has just lost his mother, who fled Beijing before he was born and whom he claims he didn’t really know (she spoke only Chinese). His father was never in the picture. He now lives with the family of his “cousin” Connie (a terrific Jihan Haddad), a 25-year-old graduate student and Manford’s cheerleader and True North.

The rest of the almost two-hour (one intermission) production flips back and forth between 1971 and 1989, filling in the gaps in the storyline and fleshing out its four characters. The flashbacks to 1971 (wonderfully costumed by Seth Bodie) contrast the brash, arrogant Saul and Wen, the hollowed-out victim of a regime he hates but resignedly obeys. Eighteen years later, their positions and perspectives have shifted. Wen is on top of his game and is chomping at the bit to give Saul a taste of the medicine he dished out in 1971.

Yee tackles many big-ticket issues in her play (the human cost of the Cultural Revolution, taking a stand vs standing still, living an authentic life, and cultural identity) and by its end, we understand her four characters and what makes them tick. Although overlong and in need of some editing, “The Great Leap” is greatly satisfying and its ending alone is worth the price of admission.

For tickets and information, go to:www.lyricstage.com

The Great Leap – Written by Lauren Yee. Directed by Michael Hisamoto. Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh. Costume Design by Seth Bodie. Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson. Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston through March 19, 2023.

A film about an opera written at a Nazi concentration camp on screen in Beverly

“The Kaiser of Atlantis” director Sebastián Alfie adapted charcoal sketches made by Terezín prisoners for the film’s animated sequences./COURTESY PHOTO

By Shelley A. Sackett

Argentine filmmaker Sebastián Alfie saw the opera, “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” by chance. He was visiting his hometown Buenos Aires in 2006, and happened to get tickets to the Teatro Colón, where it was playing. He was amazed by the music and the story surrounding it.

Composer Viktor Ullmann’s chamber opera, with a libretto by Peter Kien, was written in 1943 while they were imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezín). It tells the story of the Emperor of Atlantis, a tyrant bent on waging endless war. It was rehearsed in 1944, but never performed at Terezín because that October, most of the musicians were deported to Auschwitz, where Ullmann and Kien were killed.

The manuscript, however, survived, and through a series of lucky coincidences, ended up in the hands of London-based musician and arranger Kerry Woodward, who conducted the world première of the piece in Amsterdam in 1975.

Alfie researched the opera and its history, and discovered no one had told its remarkable story, but at that time he lacked the resources to film it. Seven years in the making, his documentary, “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” tells the remarkable journey of the opera from its creation in 1943 to its large-scale staging at Madrid’s Teatro Real nearly 80 years later.

The film will have its U.S. première as part of Salem Film Fest on Sunday, March 26, at 2:30 p.m. at The Cabot in Beverly. Alfie will join viewers for a live, post-screen Q&A. The film has been selected by festivals in over 20 countries and has so far won nine awards.

“Kaiser” intertwines several narrative threads, from the opera’s collaborative origin to Woodward’s own deep connection to its composer and his work to the newest production in Madrid by the late stage director Gustavo Tambascio and conductor Pedro Halffter. It took Alfie two years to edit his film, “cleaning” what wasn’t moving the story forward.

There is even a mystical strand, involving Woodward’s connection to Rosemary Brown, the late English spiritualist, composer, and pianist who claimed that dead composers dictated new works to her. Respected in her time, even Leonard Bernstein sought Brown’s counsel.

“I think this is the first time that a medium takes part in a Holocaust documentary … as far as I know,” Alfie said by email from Spain, where he is now based. Woodward maintained that he was able to connect with Ullmann through Brown to address questions regarding the original score.

Alfie included music and animation to great artistic effect. He found inspiration for the animated sequences in actual drawings made by prisoners who used pieces of charcoal to sketch on the back of Nazi registration forms. These were adapted by the film’s animators.

“I needed to explain the plot of the opera, and animation was the perfect tool to do it,” Alfie said. He also needed to fill in the gaps about parts of the story that had been lost forever. There is almost no photographic record of Viktor Ullmann, for example, and animation was a good way of representing his biography.

When Alfie interviewed Dagmar Lieblova, a Czech Terezín survivor who appears in the film, he was deeply affected. Until her death in 2018, and well into her 80s, she was a tireless lecturer at Terezin, conducting classes with students of all nationalities. “Meeting her was the most emotional part of the entire filmmaking process for me,” he said.

Alfie hopes audiences will leave the film with greater understanding of the sacrifices Ullmann, Kien, and their friends made and the role art can play when fighting for what we think is just. The film’s dire warning about tyrants is as relevant today as it was in 1943.

“If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we are condemned to repeat them. When rulers play with war in order to gain popular support, they are playing with fire and putting us all at risk,” he said. Θ

The Salem Film Fest runs from March 23 to April 2. For information and tickets, visit salemfilmfest.com.

Author to tell Golda Meir’s story through a feminist lens at JCCNS

Pnina Lahav, author of “The Only Woman in the Room”

By Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD — There is no dearth of books about and by Golda Meir, the Israeli politician, teacher, and kibbutznik who served as the fourth prime minister from 1969 to 1974. Yet, as far as Pnina Lahav was concerned, Meir’s real story was still untold.

The former law professor and member of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University last September published, “The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and Her Path to Power,” which looks at Meir through a feminist lens, focusing on her recurring role as a woman standing alone among men. The meticulously researched book is chockful of anecdotes that flesh out Meir’s full identity as a woman, Jew, wife, mother, and Zionist leader who was one of the founders of Israel.

On Tuesday, March 21 at 7 p.m., the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead will sponsor “An Evening with Pnina Lahav,” where the Israel-born scholar will talk about her new book with this Journal correspondent and answer questions from the audience. The event is part of the Israel at 75 series and will be followed by a dessert reception.

The idea for the book emerged as Lahav approached retirement and found herself reflecting on her career and what had most resonated with her over the decades. In 1998, she wrote her first biography, an award-winning book about Shimon Agranat, the third president of the Supreme Court of Israel. She had enjoyed both the process and the positive reviews and prizes it earned.

While searching for a special retirement gift to herself, she came up with the perfect idea: She would write another biography and return to the topic that had held her interest for half a century, since she published her first article in 1974 titled, “The Status of Women In Israel: Myth and Reality.”

“I decided to explore how Golda, the most successful Israeli politician of the 20th century and the fourth and only woman prime minister, functioned between the myth of equality and the reality of misogyny,” Lahav told the Journal. The title is both a play on the famous statement, attributed to David BenGurion, that Golda was ‘the only man in the room,’ and a tip of the hat to the fact that Golda surrounded herself with men. She made sure she was indeed the only woman in her political room.

Lahav’s biggest challenge was covering the entire history of Israel through a gender-oriented lens, from the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) to the Yom Kippur War (1973). She hopes today’s Jewish woman learns a lesson of perseverance from reading about Golda’s life story.

“If you want something with all your heart, try to get it, try to do it all, and do not fear criticism. At the end, you will be a happier person.” Lahav said. Θ

The event is free to JCCNS members, $10 for the community. To register, visit jccns.org.

‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams’ Shines a Light on Hattie McDaniel and Her 1940 Oscar

Samantha Jane Williams, Michelle Fenelon, and Stewart Evan Smith in ‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams’ at GBSC. Photos by Nile Scott Studios

By Shelley A. Sackett

Playwright LaDarrion Williams has cherry-picked a dramatic moment in history to explore in his well-crafted ‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams.’ The date is February 29, 1940, the night of the Academy Awards. The setting is Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel bar, outside the grand ballroom where the awards will be presented.

Before the ceremony even starts, this year’s Oscars have made history. Hattie McDaniel is the first Black actor to be nominated for an award. She is up for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara’s ‘mammy’ in the Civil War era blockbuster, “Gone With the Wind.”

Working in the sumptuous Art Deco lounge (kudos to set designer Rachel Rose Burke) are Black employees Arthur Brooks (Stewart Evan Smith), a bartender, and Dottie Hudson (Michelle Fenelon), a chambermaid. The two banter as comfortably as rivalrous siblings. In the course of their intimate conversation, the audience picks up that they have been friends since they were two years old. Together, they left rural Alabama for Hollywood to follow their dreams. Dottie, a talented singer, is waiting for her big break. Arthur dreams of becoming a film screenwriter and director. He even has a title for his first project: ‘The Boulevard of Bold Dreams.”

Williams, Smith

Their big dreams, however, run smack into the reality of 1940s California, where most working-class Blacks are relegated to subservient positions and racism is less violent but no less virulent than the version they lived with in Alabama. While waiting for their dreams to come true, they work day jobs they hate.

The silver lining is they work in the same hotel and get to hang out. A lot. They talk about everything under the sun. This evening, Hattie McDaniel is topic number one. The white hotel owner just directed Arthur to set up a table for her in the back corner of the theater, out of sight of the white guests. Allowing her in the hotel at all is a major concession in this whites-only establishment; sitting with her castmates would be out of the question.

The two debate the double-edged sword of the evening and whether McDaniel should attend or not. McDaniel’s nomination for the movie industry’s highest honor is a milestone breakthrough and achievement for Blacks everywhere. “She came out here with nothing but $50 and a dream. She’s a credit to our race,” Arthur says.

Fenelon, Smith

Dotty, on the other hand, thinks McDaniel should strike back at the white establishment that has used and abused her, and refuse to attend. Dotty chafes at the Mammy role that practically venerates slavery and has McDaniel “shucking and jiving for those white folk.” On top of that, and most unforgivable, is the fact that McDaniel was not even allowed to attend the movie’s premiere with her fellow castmates because it debuted at a whites-only theater in Atlanta.

Their hypothetical debate turns real when Hattie McDaniel (Samantha Jane Williams) herself wanders into the bar, seeking a moment alone while she wrestles with the very issue Dotty and Arthur have been discussing. For her, the matter is far more pressing. She has decided she won’t attend the awards ceremony under her agent’s conditions (the studio has even written her acceptance speech, not trusting her to speak on her own ). “What’s the point if I’m not treated like a human being? All I want is to sit with my cast,” she says sadly.

Arthur and Dotty have only minutes if they are to convince her otherwise.

McDaniel describes the negative reaction that has worn her down. Even the NAACP, criticizing the part as “a disgrace to colored folks,” urged her to refuse the role. “My own worst enemy ain’t the white folks. It’s my own people,” she explains.

Over drinks and stories of hardships and dreams, the three reveal their experiences with a racist system designed to keep them down. Arthur tries to convince McDaniel of the importance of the day for Blacks everywhere. Dottie ferociously attacks McDaniel for her part in perpetuating the myth of Blacks with her roles playing happy maids and slaves. She accuses her of being the worst kind of sell-out.

“I’d rather play a maid in the movies than be one in real life,” McDaniel finally fires back. She takes on these maid roles with “pride and responsibility,” she explains, as an homage to Black women and their sacrifices. She wants to show the human value of caregivers like her own mother, a former slave, who made a living mothering the children of a white family who acted like she didn’t exist. “I took those roles for me. I’d play a thousand maids to show people my mother’s worth,” she says. “I made you see them. You know them now.”

Fenelon, Smith, Williams

Eventually, McDaniel’s ambivalence about attending the ceremony wanes. She attends and (no spoilers here) wins, beating out cast mate Olivia de Havilland. The show’s closing scene projects her actual acceptance speech onto a vintage black and white TV along with speeches of ten Black actors who won Oscars since, a clever touch. Especially poignant is hearing Mo’Nique, best-supporting actress winner 70 years later for “Precious,” declare, “I’d like to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”

Williams’ script does an excellent job of bringing us into the hearts and minds of his fictionalized characters while also conjuring up McDaniel’s conflicted viewpoint. At 100 minutes (no intermission), the play both flows and informs. Yet, given the personal pain and humiliation that accompanied her trailblazing triumph, we can’t help wondering how the real Hattie McDaniel, armed with 20-20 hindsight, might truthfully answer Dotty’s question: Was it worth it?

‘Boulevard of Bold Dreams’ — Written by LaDarrion Williams; Directed by Taavon Gamble; Scenic Design by Rachel Rose Burke; Lighting Design by Corey Whittemore; Costume Design by Klara Escalera; Sound Design by James Cannon; Property Design by Emily Allinson. Presented by the Greater Boston Stage Company at 395 Main St., Stoneham, MA through March 19.

For tickets and information, go to https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

A.R.T’s ‘Wife of Willesden’ is a Pleasure with a Capital P

Clare Perkins in ‘The Wife of Willesden’ at the A.R.T. Photo Credits: Marc Brenner

by Shelley A. Sackett

Whether by design or chance, the slightly tardy start to “The Wife of Willesden” gifted the audience with a few bonus minutes to soak in the vibe of Robert Jones’s magnificent set while seat dancing to disco party tunes. The stage, meant to represent a pub in Willesden (a multi-racial part of North London’s Brent) feels more like a holy shrine to drink and camaraderie. Six triple-case bays are filled floor to ceiling with glimmering bottles. A disco ball sparkles from above. A barmaid cuts fruit while local revelers mill about. Members of the audience sit at small tables on the stage, further breaking down the fourth wall. The effect is, well, intoxicating.

And then boom! The play starts.

Enter Author (Jessica Murrain), an undisguised stand-in for playwright Zadie Smith, who profusely apologizes for the play we are about to see and introduces us to the pub’s lively, diverse clientele. “If there is a person in Brent who doesn’t think their life should be turned into a 400-page story, I’d like to meet them,” she declares.

Based on Chaucer’s 1392 “The Canterbury Tales,” Smith’s raucous modernized reworking has the pub’s motley group of locals gathered for a story-telling competition with the prize of a full English breakfast to the winner. The first few stories are told by pompous men, who drone on about themselves with misplaced over-confidence. Lurking in the background is Alvita, the Wife of Willesden. Finally, fed up with the men’s yawning yarns and itching for center stage, she grabs the imaginary mic and never puts it down.

Marcus Adolphy, Perkins, George Eggay, and Andrew Frame

As Alvita, Clare Perkins is a category 6 hurricane. Poured into a scarlet body-hugging dress and shod in weapon-grade stilettos heels, she bursts into the spotlight and commands it for the rest of the evening. Brash and boozy, fierce and wise, Alvita has a story to tell, a folktale about an 18th-century Jamaican soldier and a life-changing lesson he learned. But first, she needs to introduce herself and provide a little context. By way of prologue to her actual tale, she recounts her romantic history of five marriages with full Monty unapologetic focus on sex, pleasure, and her rapacious libido.

“The shock never ends when women say things usually said by men whether today or 600 years ago,” she says with a wink. Alvita is a consummate narrator. She imitates, animates, and intimidates, bringing her history to life with the help of her husbands, who happen to be at the pub. They are her willing props as she details their virtues and vices, defending her right to marry as many times as she pleases. She is utterly devoid of regrets and chafes at anyone who dares to judge her. Her philosophy of life defies conventions and rules, be they religious, political, or matrimonial. “What you call laws, I call advice,” she tells her strict, churchgoing aunt. “I think God likes variety.”

Most of all, Alvita is an unashamed pleasure seeker. She wears her libido on her sleeve like a badge of honor. “I demand pleasure,” she half growls, half purrs. “I’m all about what feels good.” Eventually, (and just in the nick of time, as the prologue begins to feel more like a reprise), Alvita launches into the meat of her story — the Jamaican folktale. A young 18th-century soldier is sentenced to die for raping a woman. In the spirit of restorative justice, the benevolent Queen Nanny agrees to spare his life under one condition. He has a year and a day to comb the earth and discover the answer to the same question Alvita poses rhetorically throughout the play: What do women want?

The folktale’s answer echoes Alvita’s feminist refrain— women want to be free of fear, to be happy, to follow their own path of their own making, and, most importantly, to be deliciously, eternally, and completely satisfied sexually. She looks at the men around her and the power they claim as rightfully theirs and basically says, “I’ll have what they’re having.”

Perkins’s performance cannot be overpraised. She doesn’t steal the show; she IS the show. Her charismatic Alvita may present as part stand-up comic, part Tina Turner, but beneath that flashy exterior beats a tender heart with a sage message. Perkins effortlessly melds Alvita’s contradictory traits into a single nuanced and likable character.

Kiln Theatre Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham brings a playfulness to the 95-minute (no intermission) production, changing mood, time, and place with, for example, a simple gold tray behind the head to represent an apostle or bar rags to represent togas. The superb ensemble cast doesn’t seem to be acting when frolicking on stage; they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Claudia Grant, Ellen Thomas, Scott Miller, and Frame

Finally, there is Smith’s ambitious and smart play. Although the cast’s uneven Jamaican, Nigerian, and North London accents and rapid-fire delivery made some of the lines impossible to decipher, Smith’s rhyming couplets in today’s vernacular evoked Chaucer’s Middle English in rhythm and meaning. That is no small feat. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an uptick in interest in the original as a result. Or in Smith’s award-winning novels.

Though not without flaws, “The Wife of Willesden” is clever, fast-paced, and beautifully produced with a timely message and, above all else, the magnificent Clare Perkins in a role she was born to play. Although studying Chaucer is hardly a prerequisite, a cursory google search would enhance appreciation for Smith’s remarkable talent while scattering a few breadcrumbs to make following its path easier. For tickets and information, go to: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/

The Wife of Willesden’ – Adapted by Zadie Smith from Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’ from The Canterbury Tales; Directed by Kiln Theatre Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham; Design by Robert Jones, Lighting Design by Guy Hoare; Composition and Sound Design by Drama Desk Ben and Max Ringham. The Wife of Willesden is a Kiln Theatre Production and is presented in association with BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA through March 17