Review: A multitude of issues shoot through the window in S.F. Playhouse’s insightful ‘Great Khan’

In San Francisco Playhouse’s production of “The Great Khan,” young Jayden presents a challenge to his teacher Mr. Adams. Can this very white teacher, who goes around saying racist dreck such as “history is written by the winners,” name 20 Black figures that aren’t in sports or entertainment?

Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) tries to engage student Jayden (Leon Jones) in the San Francisco Playhouse production of “The Great Khan.” (Cover photo) Temujin, also known as Genghis Khan (Brian Rivera) is one of multiple people who enter Jayden’s window unannounced. (all photos by Jessica Palopoli)

The start isn’t promising. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Check. Malcolm X? Ok, that leaves 18 more.

It doesn’t get much better from there.

Michael Gene Sullivan’s compelling world premiere that runs through Nov. 13, carries with it some timely ferocity, exploring themes such as the danger of living within a Black body, how history taught in K-12 education has suffocated anything that does not showcase Eurocentric glory, and how the connotation of historical figures such as Genghis Khan can be wildly different than the denotation.

Early in the narrative, the fear of Jayden (Leon Jones) comes with staring down the barrel of a loaded gun from Ant (Jamella Cross), who’s angry because he saved her from an assault. Jayden is under constant trauma assault himself, living in a room he has no desires to improve upon, living next to multiple moving boxes that glumly state, “Jayden’s room.”

The show is directed with some mighty strokes from Darryl V. Jones, a creative that’s tasked with corralling Sullivan’s script that dips and darts in many critical directions, not always staying in one place long enough to maximize each idea’s potency.

Yet, Sullivan tasks his actors with so many rich moments, giving each of the five characters ample opportunities to shine.

The multiple plot points of the story mostly revolve around Jayden and his frustration with being enmeshed in a public-school system that skews heavily towards anything that centers whiteness, often at the expense of other contributions that shaped every ounce of who we are as a world. Seriously, can you imagine what our society would have been like if the Mongols didn’t invent pants?

Despite a perilous start to their friendship, Jayden and Ant (Jamella Cross) find a common bond.

The result of Jayden’s frustration with Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) is an assigned report on Genghis Khan, a man whose role in ancient society is rosier than he was led to believe. Khan was a brutal being who roamed at a brutal time but Jayden relishes the opportunity to tell Khan’s other truth – a uniter of religions, devoted to his wife Börte.

This report, assisted mightily by Jayden’s school chum Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) and her resolve for Mongolian history, provides a ton of critical exposition that ultimately helps the audience make some massive discoveries that assist our understanding of the story. Gao-Ming does not just come over and put her dad on FaceTime to hilarious effect, she also serves as the resident docent, consistently making her case in long spurts throughout the play. The highly-skilled performer Kantor moves with a smooth flow replete with delightful passion and vast comic timing.

But what’s a play about Genghis Khan without the man himself making an appearance? Khan, also known as Temujin (Brian Rivera) is only the latest that has an all-access pass through Jayden’s window. Rivera’s Temujin is fantastic, always funny with a level of poignancy that makes Jayden feel seen in ways he never imagined – a young Black man finding his way in a society that often doesn’t want him.

Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) shows Jayden her passion for their common history project subject Genghis Khan.

The strength of the show is how each character is given a chance to provide insight into their own reality. To see Jayden and Ant put on such a violent façade only to turn around and share their common purview is heartbreaking. Jayden’s sweet as candy mother Crystal is played with much-needed delicacy by Bay Area stalwart Velina Brown, who oscillates between frustration with Jayden’s lack of urgency to get in the shower, and her inability to fully heal his heart. Both Cross, who brought some serious thunder with the company’s production of “{Hierogplyh},” has a nice range that finds her playing a pulsing, gun-wielding yet scared human that opens up exponentially through her friendship with Jayden. KuveNiemann takes on a bumbling teacher to great effect, a metaphor for the color blind educator that is sadly not an anomaly. And Jones puts the entire play on his back many times, using every ounce of his range that fiercely meets each critical moment.

If every kid walks out of a public education institution without knowing at least 20 names of Black people who changed the world outside of sports or entertainment, that’s a problem. Even Genghis Khan will tell you that, because he sure told Jayden, who might want to invest in a window lock from now on.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Francisco Playhouse presents “The Great Khan”
Written by Michael Gene Sullivan
Directed by Darryl V. Jones
The Word: Sullivan’s smart script moves in lots of directions, but gives each of the talented cast of five great words to express.
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Through Nov. 13 (in-person and online)
Tickets range from $30 – $100
For tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org

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