Hearing Gil Scott-Heron speak about his powerful early 1970’s anthem “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” which was first a spoken poem and then a song, you hear the voice of a man ahead of his time, an urban prophet sublimely in tune with his community and the issues surrounding Black America.
When Scott-Heron spoke of that song, a tune that he published when he was only 21-years-old, there is passion. The revolution he spoke of is not one you would have found on the VHF or UHF channels on your black and white tube, but one that exists in the mind – a mind that needs to be ready for the change that is coming.
And when that change comes, said Scott-Heron, “it’s something that no one will ever be able to capture on film.”
San Francisco’s Magic Theatre is capturing Scott-Heron’s story on stage, with a world premiere of playwright Han Ong’s “Grandeur,” directed by the Magic’s artistic director Loretta Greco. Ong’s play, now in previews with an opening scheduled for Wednesday, June 7th, tells the story of a meeting between Scott-Heron and a young journalist, and their conversations about legacy, art and redemption fill the space. Carl Lumbly, whose acting career spans five decades on stage and screen, plays Scott-Heron.
This latest play takes place in Scott-Heron’s darkened apartment just after the release of his 2010 album “I’m New Here,” his 13th and final album before his passing in the spring of 2011 at the age of 62. The journalist, played by Rafael Jordan, interviews the enigmatic Scott-Heron during that final year of his life, a life that ended after battling drug addiction for many years.
Greco is certainly compelled by Scott-Heron’s story, a man who had a huge moral and social compass. And the chance to work with Ong, who last collaborated with the Magic 25 years ago, was an incredible opportunity. Their collaboration on this fictional piece showcases the virtues and demons of Scott-Heron, a man devoid of pretense who was fueled by his desires to strengthen the world for the downtrodden.
“Scott-Heron was all about making art that tried to help people,” said Greco. “He was such an accomplished artist, and he knew that his art was not about him, but about ideas. His ideologies were things he found and offered up for people to partake in if it spoke to them.
“He was never perceived to be a person on high talking to the little people. If it spoke to people, great. There was a kind of humility in his sharing that I appreciated.”
The play was written in 2014 by Ong, a Macarthur Genius Grant recipient 20 years ago when he was 29. His works for the stage were written and produced mostly in the 1990’s, yet his writing continued over the years with multiple books and short stories.
What Greco loves about Ong’s work is his special attention to the dramaturgy in the play. This is a piece that Greco says does not have a lot of bells and whistles, but rather a play where the alchemy of theatre is at the heart of the presentation.
And even though Scott-Heron faced his personal battles for many years, the magic of his voice and message came through loud and clear on “I’m New Here.” For Greco, utilizing a primary resource by watching him sing from that last album captured her when the play was being considered for production.
“He was obviously physically ravaged by addiction, his voice was half of what it was, but I was captivated and couldn’t look away for all the right reasons,” said Greco. “There was a twinkle in his eye and a joy that emanated as he sang, just a joy and a sense that he never stopped loving this.
“Everything you know about him I was able to visually see about him. He had such spirit, and that humanity was the most potent piece of dramaturgy I carried into rehearsal every day.”
Even though Scott-Heron passed away more than seven years ago, his lessons about empowerment and justice ring as true today as they ever have.
“We need more Scott-Heron’s today. He had to show activism through art, and speaking power to the people,” said Greco. “He was someone who really gave back to the community in order to make the community better, and we hope the play inspires and galvanizes meaningful conversation on a lot of different fronts.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Magic Theatre presents “Grandeur”
Written by Han Ong
Directed by Loretta Greco
Through June 25th
The Magic Theatre
2 Marina Blvd, Building D, Third Floor
San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $35 – $75
For tickets, call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org