Rui Dun’s love of theater runs deep, but there aren’t many productions that speak to the 31-year-old director’s personal experience.
That has changed with her opportunity to direct “The Great Leap” for Pleasantville’s Arc Stages for a seven-performance run over three weekends starting Friday evening.
It is playwright Lauren Yee’s critically acclaimed story about a young Chinese-American man who is regarded as a playground basketball legend in San Francisco’s Chinatown and talks his way onto a college team that travels to Beijing to compete against a Chinese national squad. The play is set during the post-cultural revolution in the late 1980s.
Dun was born and raised in China, and after school left her hometown for Changchun to work for a small theater company for six or seven years. She arrived in New York to attend The Actors Studio Drama School and gravitated to the works of Asian-American playwrights, including Yee. “The Great Leap” debuted on Off Broadway in 2018.
“That one just stuck with me since then, and I’ve been sort of following her career on the sidelines,” Dun said of the playwright. “So ‘The Great Leap’ has been put up a few times around the country, so it has always been a story that’s always been very important, and I wish everyone could see.”
What makes the story special for Dun, having now experienced life in both the United States and China, is its “duality of identity” as both an Asian and an Asian-American story.
“But in this, with the reaction of father and son, there’s that duality of what does it mean to grow up in China versus growing up in America, and it has been in my mind because, obviously, I relate to Chinese-American stories,” Dun said. “However, that’s not everybody’s story. There’s always that divide between Asians who arrived from Asia and Asians who grew up here, so this is sort of that landscape I wanted to explore, so that’s exciting.”
Arc Stages’ Artistic Director Adam Cohen said he selected “The Great Leap,” which features actors Fang Du, Jose Gamo, Ken Straus and Yeena Sung, for the theater company’s Next Stage production because he felt it was an important and poignant piece. Finding plays that aren’t well-known to the general public but tell a compelling story is one of the hallmarks of Arc Stages.
“We do these shows because they have something to say, that the art is important and that people can come and get lost in the night for a few hours and sort of go away thinking about something, and I think we can all use that,” Cohen said.
Dun said when Cohen reached out to her to direct the show, she jumped at the chance, even though at the time she had left New York for Portland, Ore. because the theater world had shut down in the wake of COVID-19. She currently works for a non-profit organization and has returned to Manhattan.
“For Adam to put on a story that’s less represented, that’s very exciting for me,” Dun said. “It’s finally, finally, a story I really connect with that I can direct and realize a vision that’s true to me.”
One of the key reasons Dun left China to come to the U.S. for graduate school was she felt she had learned leadership skills while working for the theater company but was hemmed in as Chinese society typically relegates women to supporting roles. She was also attracted to see if she could make it in New York’s vibrant but demanding theater scene.
It helped Dun that starting with her generation most students in China are taught English, which helped when she arrived in New York. But while she was prepared language-wise, there was a deep cultural divide that affects simple tasks, such as ordering food.
Dun looks upon theater as a way to help her fulfill her artistic ambitions instead of necessarily making it her main livelihood.
“I’m thinking of theater more as a nurturing experience in my life rather than a career,” Dun said.
“The Great Leap” opens Friday night and continues on Oct. 1, 7, 8, 14, 15 and 16. Performances are 8 p.m. each day except for the final show, which is a 2 p.m. matinee. Tickets are $28 to $38.
Arc Stages is located at 147 Wheeler Ave. in Pleasantville. For tickets and more information, visit www.arcstages.org.
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