For all of the influence and passion Gil Scott-Heron spread among the world in his 40-plus years as an artist, the final chapter of his life was largely a painful, enigmatic existence.
This is exemplified beautifully in the set for the Magic Theatre’s strong production of Han Ong’s play “Grandeur.” The set, designed with an abundance of detail by Hana S. Kim, is a metaphor of riches. In the Magic’s tight, three-sided thrust space at Fort Mason, every part of the space informs the action. And as that action unfolds, the literal and metaphoric darkness that envelops the life of Scott-Heron becomes brighter as he allows the young New York Review journalist Steve Barron to turn on a few lights.
That simple gesture forges a connection. After all, other journalists have tried to turn on lights to get a closer glimpse of the icon, a pioneer of poetry, rap and spoken word, and all have been rejected.
It does not take a long time for Barron to face an ethical dilemma. For the exchange of ideas with this great master, an interview that will certainly strengthen his status in the Review offices, does he succumb to what Gil Scott-Heron really wants? It may be something that causes harm, but sometimes the ethics of a journalist does not have the welfare of the subject in mind. This would be visceral insight of epic proportions, and as a journalist in the era of clickbait, how can Barron say no?
These are complicated decisions, and Loretta Greco’s direction moves at a solid pace, allowing each of her actors to ponder each choice they face effectively. While Ong’s script sometimes labors, and the mystery of the man might make the audience a bit disconnected, especially in the first act, act two does a lot to bring the action to more urgency.
Carl Lumbly, who takes on the role of Scott-Heron, is solid as the enigmatic, forgotten star. He is visceral in his choices, eyes darting and active, a mind always racing. He has a taste for a stronger potion, but is relegated to downing Orange Fanta by the case. He jokes that if he were to be carved open, a surplus of orange fluid would certainly be flowing freely.
His counterpart who plays Barron, Rafael Jordan, doesn’t seem to match the energy that Lumbly gives him, at times resorting to acting choices that don’t always feel organic. What he does do well though is play the moments of conflict. Should he in fact give in to this connection he feels he now has with Scott-Heron?
While Lumbly wields a worthy presence on the stage, it is the straight fire performance of Safiya Fredericks who steals the show as the passionate Miss Julie, dubbed that name by Scott-Heron, in homage to August Strindberg’s fiery female title character. Miss Julie is an adult college student who takes nothing from nobody, and we learn early on that her strong thoughts did not appeal to a professor who kicked her out of his class.
Where Miss Julie goes from here is the through line of the piece. Here comes Barron, wielding his white-space approved New York Review pedigree, and Miss Julie is having none of it, going into a delectably passionate, snap-inducing soliloquy about the New York Review tote bag on college campuses. Is this bag a rallying cry for the college white liberal in order to remove any semblance of guilt? She is ferocious in her attack, does not let up. Why all of a sudden does the big kid on the block give a shit about him, when before they paid him no mind? Ong’s poetry flows from her majestically.
While Miss Julie fights against the establishment that might have torn him down, it is not hard to realize that this woman has taken and applied to her life some of Gil Scott-Heron’s greatest lessons, unbeknownst to him even. And in her takedown, she needs to remind Barron that he stands before a legend. On par with Dylan. A man who exuded greatness in his best years.
Ultimately, who is Gil Scott-Heron? Maybe he is the man who was rapping about the human condition long before Tupac said “It seems the rain’ll never let up/I try to keep my head up and still keep from gettin’ wet up.” Is he a man who would have so much to say in today’s anxiety fueled zeitgeist, where black men are being taken from their families in violent and sickening fashion? Or was he a tortured drug addict, a flawed human being who ultimately succumbed to the pressures of his existence? Ong’s play does not make a case for anything, leaving that decision for the audience.
There is no denying the passion that comes through the album that sends Barron to see Scott-Heron, 2010’s “I’m New Here.” And with the compelling nature of the album, created by a great artist facing his own mortality, so many of the lyrics are fueled with pathos. Maybe these lyrics fit this play best:
“So if you see the Vulture coming,
flying circles in your mind,
Remember there is no escaping
for he will follow close behind.
Only promised me a battle,
battle for your soul and mine.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Magic Theatre presents “Grandeur”
Written by Han Ong
Directed by Loretta Greco
The Word: A solid first act gives way to a much stronger second act in this compelling fictional drama about one of America’s most important, yet forgotten, pioneers.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through June 25th
Running Time: One hour, 45 minutes with a 10-minute intermission
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