Friday, March 11, 2022

San Diego Rep’s “The Great Khan” Packs a Powerhouse Message Without Lecturing But With Lots of Humor and Truth

 While some of us were trying to figure out what to do with our lives during the worst of the Pandemic, most theatres were not sitting on their hands. Theatres were closed and performances cancelled or dropped, but behind the scenes things were happening. Take for instance The National New Play Network Rolling World Premierethat was featured at San Diego REP’s 2021 Black Voices Reading Series. It was at once selected for development and inclusion as a mainstage production in the REP’s 46th season, ergo Michael Gene Sullivan’s “The Great Khan”. 

Co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Redtwist Theatre “The Great Khan” is directed by Jess McLeodwho pulls no punches. 

Telling it like it is might be a bit hard to digest for some but the bitter truth as told by sixteen year old Jayden (Jerome Beck is excellent) when his white history teacher Mr. Adams (Dylan John Seaton) couldn’t stop telling Jayden how special he was for lack of anything else to say about him him, Jayden challenges him to name forty Black people of importance without naming anyone in sports or showbusiness. 

When he agrees, struggling to write down at least two, he assigns Jayden to write a book report about Genghis Kahn as part of a class project. He’s partnered up with Gao Ming (Molly Aden) whose somewhat strange behavior, somehow works for the two of them since she has been studying up on Kahn and helps Jayden along in her own way. As they learn more together snippets of the report are told orally by Ming and are reinforced by projections (Blake McCarty) across the walls of Jayden's bedroom where they are studying.   

Jayden’s the new kid at his all -white school after his mother, Crystal (Brittany M. Caldwell) and he moved from his last school where he had his homies. But because Jayden also rescued Ant (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) from some of the boys at the old school from sexually assaulting her, he was their new target. He spends most of his time in his room playing his Game Boy videos listening to rap music and looking for reasons for not going to school over the objections of his mother. 

The play opens with Jayden, asleep in his box laden bedroom (Ye-Chien Lee) when someone steals into his room and pulls out a gun. Scaring the beejeasus out of him, it turns out to be Ant who without saying it wants a connection with someone from their old school but is pissed at Jayden for rescuing her. They go back and forth and she leaves but not without making him promise to tell no one. Over time she sneaks back into his room where talk about who they are, telling their own  stories about themselves and the frustrations about how they are treated and stereotyped as both teenagers and black. 

Mikayla LeShae Bartholomew and Jerome Beck

But the real break out comes alive when Jayden and his mother have a come to Jesus shouting match where Jayden finally tells his mother exactly what he, as a person wants, not what she as a mother wants for him. The match between them is the highlight of their reconciliation, and true affection as the chemistry on stage between the two ends in a huge bear-hug that signals they are going the O.K.

And yes there is more: Over time Jayden is visited by what he thinks is his fearless Khan (Brian Rivera), his hero and builder and conqueror of nations. Khan plays down some of his conquests and softens a bit as Jayden tries to bond with him by teaching him (in hilarious scenes), how to play his Game Boy. As Timujin or Khan, Brian Rivera looks more like a softie rather than a great worrior, but since the clothes make the man, he surely looks the part. 

Will all of this all change the course of history or what's written in the history books? Probably not, but it does give us something to think about.

Brian Rivera and Jerome Beck

Putting the finishing touches on “The Great Khan” is costume designer Faith James, lighting designer Rebecca Jeffords, sound designer Tosin Olufolabi and stage manager Kira Vine along with a host of other technical support. Remembering that it takes a village.

All in all, “The Great Khan” is definitely one of those plays that truly belongs to todays must see, must hear, must listen, taste, and feel to understand the angst of the oppressed, of the tales and false narratives in  history. This is done not by banning books but by making those and more available.  

Hats off to the Rep., Sam Woodhouse, Michael Gene Sullivan, Jess McLeod and a terrific cast. 

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 27

Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego

Tickets: $25-$91

Photo: Rich Soublet Photography 

Phone: (619) 544-1000


COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of showtime, with photo ID required. Face masks required indoors.


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