“Time is the greatest writer of us all.
Time has written over what I’ve written.
Time has made me more moving than I set out to be and
less potent than I was before.”
Time’s march toward some inevitable but as-yet-undefined end for one man is an underlying tension point in Han Ong’s new play, Grandeur, now in its world premiere at Magic Theatre. How will this man use the time he has left, however long that is? Is a recent, highly acclaimed LP album a rebirth or a fluke after almost two decades of crack-induced ups and downs? How will he be remembered? Why is there sudden interest by national press in the life of this man that many refer to as “the Godfather of rap”? And why was he largely ignored during his forty years as a poet, musician, and author, using his lyrical, punchy lines to comment on the social and political issues of the day – especially as they affect and involve his fellow African-Americans? And finally, why exactly is a young reporter from The New York Book Review seeking the old man out? Is there an agenda noble or one hidden?
Han Ong steps into one afternoon in 2010 of the life of Gil Scott-Heron, a name maybe not on the lips of the masses but a man who is credited to be one of the first, if not the first rapper and reportedly the inspiration for later African-American music genres such as hip-hop and neo-soul. Into that afternoon comes Steve Barron to an apartment cluttered up to the ceiling with books and memories and are kept dark even though lamps scatter themselves hap-hazard around the room. (The young writer must first follow the voice of the man he seeks to interview as he makes his way through also-dark hallways of the building.)
|Carl Lumbly & Rafael Jordan|
What we witness is a back-and-forth dance of words, challenges, dead-end alleys, and occasionally genuine connections between the two as the young writer seeks to get his subject to answer his many questions. Steve wants to focus on Mr. Heron’s first, much-acclaimed novel, Vulture -- published when the author was twenty-one -- and on his newly released LP, I’m New Here, released after a sixteen-year hiatus. Gil is more interested in a little sparring and then getting Steve to go next door to get him just one little rock of cocaine once Steve has first brought one of his favorite, orange Fantas from the ‘frig. But somehow, the two figure out how to make this dance of word play work for a series of exchanges in which a young man’s respect and awe for a hero is both justifiably solidified and seriously challenged and an older man’s notions about himself, his life’s work and worth, and maybe his inner premonitions about an approaching end are laid bare next to his current, urgent need for another few minutes of crack-induced high.
Carl Lumbly is a tall, lanky Gil Scott-Heron who sits stretched forward in his chair with long arms reaching forward as he bandies in words and occasionally breaks into a rap-like commentary in the presence of the young reporter. His voice tends toward monotone; his sentences tend to be short; and his phrases are often broken apart by pauses – all as if remembering is part of some shadowy world that may or may not be a place he is any longer interested or even capable of going. But there are moments when he comes truly alive to show glimpses of his reputation as another Bob Dylan, spitting out poetic lines or giving funny commentary on contemporary life (like a riff he does on various popular magazines to rename them as an offshoot of People magazine). Mr. Lumbly’s performance is initially largely measured and hesitant with always a touch of wry playfulness. Later, he powerfully reveals a much darker, sadder side of the poet/crack-user, performed with an ability to solicit not our pity but our compassion for the complicated man we, along with the young reporter, are meeting.
The genius of Han Ong’s play is that it may be as much or even more about the interviewer Steve Barron than about the poet/musician he comes to interview. Rafael Jordan’s performance is actually the one to watch as he enters as a wide-eyed, maybe naïve, but also clearly daring, young man -- sometimes more boy-like than adult in his wonder and worship of Mr. Heron, whom he always addresses as ‘sir.’ With an almost religious fervor, he declares,
“I believe in greatness. I believe when you get the touch the hem of greatness, you seize it. I believe that when anyone touches the hem of greatness, he gets a small taste of eternity.”
In the course of the afternoon, the playwright’s script and Mr. Jordan’s performance muddy and make complex this young man in ways gripping and with questions left hanging about his true motivations, questions not altogether answered. What is he there really to see, to record? Rafael Jordan eventually leaves behind his boy-like demeanor with his own vivid, stark memories as a young adult and with an ability to look at and watch his subject in ways that leave us with a shudder and lots of blanks left to be filled in.
A third person enters twice into this afternoon’s picture, a forty-year-old anthropology student and so-called ‘niece’ of Gil, Miss Julie as he likes to call her. Like in Strindberg’s naturalistic play of the same name, Safiya Fredericks plays a Julie who is strong-willed and in a power position over the old man she seems to be part care-giver, part watch-guard. She is suspicious --and without saying it, scared -- of this the fourth reporter suddenly taking interest during the past few weeks in her elder charge, snarling at Steve, “I know who you are ... I need you to know who you are and to be careful who you are... You’re death ... like a herald.” Ms. Fredericks is a powerful mixture of cynicism, anger, dedication, and fear; and her reasons for all those parts of her come clearer in the unfolding of her own story and of her experience as an African-American woman in the white world around her.
Loretta Greco directs this premiere at a pace and intensity that ebbs and flows, with the movement forward sometimes feeling a bit slow and laborious but at other times, ready to bring one to the edge of the seat. A memory sequence involving a moving subway and opening the second half is particularly directed with artistry and mystery. That effort is enhanced greatly by the lighting of Ray Oppenheimer, the sound of Sara Huddleston, and the projection of Hana S. Kim (who also designed the dark, claustrophobic cave of an apartment that is loaded to the brim with a life’s worth of memories and works).
Han Ong’s Grandeur complicates what makes or does not make any one person great and worthy of memorializing and emulating. He dares to put forward hard realities and to raise some questions about the African-American experience that may make those of us watching uncomfortable and/or leave us with many more questions than answers. The world premiere by Magic Theatre is not always easy to understand and is sometimes a bit slow, but the outcome is rich fodder for further thought and discussion in the days following its seeing as words and scenes suddenly reappear for reexamination.
Rating: 3.5 E
Grandeur continues through June 25, 2017 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco, CA. Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-441-8822.
Photo Credits: Jennifer Reiley