At this point in my life, it doesn’t surprise me to find that most westerners have never heard of Mansa Musa. The Black African Muslim king not only ruled one of the largest empires in world history, he was (debatably) the richest man in history. How rich? He had so much gold that simply giving it away would devalue it in whatever region he was in.
Genghis Khan is more widely known than Mansa Musa, but as an historical monster rather than a “great conqueror” on par with Alexander the Great or Napoleon. Khan has gone from galloping through most of the known world to becoming a boogeyman of western history books. So, when young Jayden (Leon Jones)—the teen lead of Michael Gene Sullivan’s The Great Khan (through November 13 at San Francisco Playhouse)—learns some oft-overlooked facts about the man named Temujin, it’s quite a revelation. Who knew they were the Mongols were the first to use trousers?
We’re introduced to Jayden in a rather unorthodox fashion. With his mother (Velina Brown) working the night shift at the post office, Jayden is asleep in his new bedroom when a hooded figure with a gun creeps in through his window. This is Ant (Jamella Cross), and she’s not a burglar; she’s the girl Jayden saved from being raped some time ago. She snuck into his room tonight to make one thing abundantly clear: that she didn’t need his help.
This highlights the first real problem with Sullivan’s script: The introduction of Ant means that her relationship with Jayden not only could be the focus of the play, but it really should be. Ant pops up sporadically throughout the piece (that she enters through Jayden’s window becomes a running joke), but the character is otherwise underutilized in a story that really needs her.
(Incidentally, this is the second Playhouse show in a row where Cross plays a Black victim of sexual assault. Fortunately, this script isn’t as grossly irresponsible as the early one.)
The focus rests on Jayden adjusting to his new home, having moved there with his mother when the aftermath of his saving Ant made things too dangerous. His would-be-woke history teacher, Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann), senses that Jayden is bright, but we’re never told how. Jayden challenges him to name 20 notable Black people who aren’t film or sports celebs, as Jayden dives into his assigned history report on Genghis Khan. With the assistance of classmate-report-partner Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor), Jayden finds Khan not only an intriguing historical subject, but an inspiration for how he should behave in modern times – for better and for worse. This eventually leads to the youngster coming face-to-face with the Mongolian himself (Brian Rivera).
This reveals another problem with The Great Khan, one that informs the first: Sullivan has a great deal he wanted to say with the script—about racism, misogyny, immigration, western history, single parenthood, and more—but trying to say it all robs the story of any real precision. The characters fall into “mouthpiece” territory, making it hard to connect with them. Even when the dialogue is spot-on (Ant has the play’s best moment with a speech about how boys-she-thought-her-friends looked at her differently once puberty hit), it doesn’t develop enough.
Both Sullivan and Brown are prominent members of the SF Mime Troupe, which co-produced the show and where the dell’Arte-influenced style of performance lends itself well to grand performances and dialogue (there’s a reason that, seven years later, I’m still quoting the line “There’s no such thing as ‘not political’.”), but it doesn’t quite fit in a story about a contemporary teen trying to figure out his place in the world.
There’s one more concern: The Great Khan is clearly written by someone who is not a contemporary teen. As I’m a 40-year-old man who cancelled all his social media accounts, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly the go-to source for what captures the zeitgeist these days. Having said that, even I know that Sullivan’s vision of contemporary teens is outdated, especially when it comes to hip-hop. When Jayden becomes more enamored of Genghis Khan, he tries to channel his admiration through rap. A gangsta rap.
Putting aside the fact that gangsta rap hasn’t had any prominence in mainstream music in over 20 years, Sullivan’s portrayal of it smacks of a broad-strokes take from 1991. Yes, there are still gangsta rappers around just are there are still Sinatra-style crooners; neither has cracked the Top 40 in recent years. There is a moment where Ant mentions Drake, but said moment comes off as easy pickin’s (what with him being one of the biggest stars in the world) and kinda icky, given Drake’s history with girls of Ant’s age. It’s a comment on hip-hop in the age of mixtapes and boomboxes that doesn’t fit into the world of Spotify and Lil Nas X.
Mind you, my awareness of the story’s flaws shouldn’t suggest that the show is a wash. The design is exemplary of the Playhouse’s high standards, with Richard Olmsted’s impeccable set “framed” with a large border for Teddy Hulsker’s projections. What’s more, the cast are all determined to find the beating hearts of their characters, including the always-reliable Brown. Kina Kantor’s performance as Gao-Ming is enough to make one wish the character had a more direct role in the plot, since she serves as the de facto “docent” pontificating on the life of Genghis Khan. Speaking of whom, Brian Rivera steals every scene in which he appears as Temujin, never overstaying his welcome and best showcasing Kathleen Qiu’s costumes.
The Great Khan is further proof of the fertility of Michael Gene Sullivan’s mind when married to his activist heart. He’ll be the first to tell you that there’s no shortage of issues in need of social attention. What holds back this play is that he’s trying to address all of them at once in a manner that makes them all blur together. That’s a shame for some eager to listen to each one.
THE GREAT KHAN runs through November 13 at San Francisco Playhouse. More info here.