Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The Great Khan
Moving is stressful at any time, but the stress is compounded when one is moving away from a place, rather than moving to someplace. Perhaps this is why, after a month, Jayden still hasn't unpacked many of the boxes in his room. Mom Crystal is working an all-night shift for the U.S. Postal Service, leaving Jayden alone. One night, as he sleeps, a hooded figure appears at his window, quietly sliding it open and stepping inside. The intruder stealthily moves through the room, opens the bedroom door to make sure no one can hear. When Jayden awakes and turns on the light, his eyes widen with fear, but in a very funny sequence (which cuts the tension delightfully) the intruder and Jayden banter about whether or not Jayden has actually "shut the fuck up" or not in a way that is almost Python-esque. Especially when the intruder is pointing a Glock at Jayden and Jayden is wearing a onesie.
It's soon revealed that the intruder is Ant, the girl he "saved." Except Ant is quite insistent that Jayden acknowledge that she didn't need saving. "Like I need savin'," she says. "Like if some boy ain't around ..." After extracting a promise to tell no one he helped her, Ant crawls back out the window, leaving Jayden more confused and at sea than ever.
Jayden has issues at his new school, as well. He's one of only two Black kids at the school, and his history teacher, Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) has taken it upon himself to try and help Jaydenin a rather clumsy, clueless, white privilege sort of wayto succeed in the school. It doesn't go well. Jayden hasn't been completing his assignments and, because he's waited so long to choose a historical figure for a report, he's been stuck with the last person on the approved list: Genghis Khan. On top of that, his report partner will be the very nerdy (but adorable) Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor, whose often wide-eyed reactions get some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
I won't say more, other than that when Jayden needs help truly understanding the character of the Khan, he gets a nighttime appearance from none other than Temujin (the birth name of Genghis Khan). Temujin is played by a very imposing (and also very funny) Brian Rivera. Over the course of the evening, Jayden learns a lotnot only about Genghis Khan, but of the challenges of being Black in America. "We stand up," Jayden says at one point, "until they shoot us down."
The cast assembled here is never anything less than brilliant. Leon Jones, at just 19, is a talent to be watched. His teen angst is absolute perfection, and his eyes reveal depths of meaning behind every line he delivers. Velina Brown soars as a mother trying to protect her child, while simultaneously wanting him to transition smoothly into adulthood. Kina Kantor has marvelous comic chops, and Adam KuveNiemann plays his role with a delightful earnestness. Jamella Cross effortlessly portrays a girl putting on a front of bravery while balancing vulnerability and confidence. Rivera roars as Temujin, taking charge of every scene he's in. It's a beautifully balanced cast.
The Great Khan is both entirely about race and, simultaneously, nothing about race. It's a timeless story about that in-between time of adolescence and its challenges. It's about discovering who you are, how the rest of the world interprets who you are, and how to reconcile those two things in order to live a genuine life. It also drives homewith fierce conviction and sly humorhow isolated people of color feel within the white-centric culture that dominates life in America. Playwright Sullivan is to be commended for laying bare some of the subtle (and not-so) ways white privilege rears its pale head. When Jayden tells Mr. Adams (after challenging him to name 20 famous Black people who aren't entertainers or athletes and he fails miserably) "I guess if we aren't entertaining you, we're not important," the line seemed to hang in the air, sizzling with righteous anger.
Michael Gene Sullivan has certainly entertained the audience with this amazing new play, but The Great Khan is far more than entertainment. It's a view of history and culture and humanity that would be incredibly important at any point in time, but is especially important now, as we continue to struggle to excise the racism that is deep in the bones of American culture.
The Great Khan runs through November 13, 2021, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00pm and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. The show is also available to be streamed. Tickets are $30-$100, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.