‘The Great Khan’ Teaches Young Black Student About Life World Premiere at San Diego Rep
Everything we know about the Great Khan (Genghis) comes from the Great Con (the teaching of history in school).
So says playwright Michael Gene Sullivan in his world premiere, “The Great Khan,” which is part of the National New Play Network, making its second stop at the San Diego Repertory Theater (the other two member theaters in this production are the San Francisco Playhouse and the Redtwist Theater in Chicago).
The comedy drama premiered locally on REP’s Black Voices reading series in 2021.
Now fully fleshed out (but in need of more crunching and cutting), it delves into the truths behind the monstrous mythos of the Mongol leader, as well as many other issues including racism, sexism, surviving trauma, and growing up while trying to figure out who you are, where you fit in, and how you can break through an oppressive past and present.
Gangsta Rap features prominently, as do F-bombs, N-words and the charismatic Khan.
But first we meet Jayden (Jerome Beck), he’s 16, but because he stepped in to protect a black classmate who was being assaulted by a gang of pugnacious and bullying black kids, he became a bet in peril.
So his mom, postal worker Crystal (Brittney M. Caldwell) moved him to a new (mostly white) neighborhood and school. Smart, nerdy, angry and obsessed with video games, Jayden is more isolated than ever.
He has no “buddies” (although he hasn’t really had any before either), and no current father (his father was deported to Africa years ago). But he is paired with another “outsider” from the school, Gao Ming, a Chinese from his history class: the biographical subject of their project is Genghis Khan.
The play takes place primarily in Jayden’s messy, still unpacked bedroom (Yi-Chien Lee’s effective cutaway stage design), where the window is given real training.
At first, Ant (short for Antoinette), the girl he saved, who indignantly insists she didn’t need saving, crawls through. Later it is the Great Khan himself.
We learn a lot about the man, born Temujin (1162-1227), who was the founder and first Great Khan (Emperor) of the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous empire in history. He rose to power not only through the brutal murders he is known for, but also by uniting many nomadic tribes in Northeast Asia.
When Temujin was young, his father was murdered and his family exiled. Jayden, who longs for the ferocity of the Khan, also feels like a refugee. He too was traumatized early on, just like his mother.
The tough and belligerent Ant (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew), the serious and intelligent Gao (Molly Adea) and the ignorant white history teacher Mr. Adams (Dylan John Seaton) are all stereotypes.
Mr. Adams, who gave the assignment, is a benevolent, man-packed liberal who tries to be cool, but has no clue about black history and struggles to name 20 famous black people. who aren’t into sports or entertainment – a challenge that Jayden defiantly presented to him.
Among the many didactic moments of the Genghis Khan presentation (accompanied by beautiful projections designed by Blake McCarty), we learn that, as The Great Khan (wonderfully amusing Brian Rivera) tells us, not only winners can write history – but also the survivors (“those we haven’t reached yet”).
As the playwright said, “No one was more defined by those who hated him than Genghis Khan.” And he asked the Khan to tell us: “My enemy is anyone who stands between my people and their freedom.
The Khan has killed a ton of people, but there’s another side to him and his story that most of us haven’t heard. He was honest, loyal and genuinely adored by his followers. Of the many truly atrocious despots mentioned in the play (Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, etc.), he was the only one greatly mourned at his death. And bonuses! — he was the first to popularize trousers!
There’s plenty to chew on and digest here, laced with humor, which makes it easy to understand. Performance is outstanding; under the assured direction of Jess McLeod, each character has believable strengths and vulnerabilities.
The costumes (Faith James) are clever, the ambient and percussive sound (Tosin Olufolabi) is excellent, and the lighting (Rebecca Jeffords) contributes greatly.
But the specific takeaways from visiting Temujin aren’t entirely clear. Exactly how should Jayden move forward as a young black man in America, born with a target on his back? Does he fight, hide, lead or kill? Or simply become the good student and the teenage geek that he was?
It’s not specified, though Temujin tells Jayden, “I became The Khan. You could become… something more. You better hope you’ve been kind and fair, or the day will come when you’ll have no place left to hide under the eternal blue sky.
In the end, Jayden seems to be moving in a positive direction. He has a romantic reconciliation with his mother, begins to unpack his boxes, and he and Ant seem to be moving towards a friendship of equals. (No sign of that with Gao, though).
Ant goes into a terrific monologue about what it’s like for a girl to hit puberty and deal with the way boys react to your altered body and start looking at you “like you’re food”, while that inside you still feel like the child you were before.
Sullivan has an astute manner with quick dialogue, a compelling perspective, and plenty to say. He is definitely someone to watch and listen to.
- “The Great Khan”, a continuing world premiere, plays at the San Diego Repertory Theater at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego until March 27
- Sessions are Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday mornings at 2 p.m.
- Tickets: ($25 – $91) are available at 619-544-1000 or sdrep.org
- Operating time: 1 hour. 50 mins.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.