Category Archive for: ‘Victor Cordell’
A life in darkness and in light.
Admirers often call Gil Scott-Heron the “Godfather of Rap” or the “Black Bob Dylan.” Perhaps best known for his recording The Revolution will not be Televised, the recently-deceased poet and musician has been a major force in black culture since the 1970s. Han Ong honors his memory in the world premiere of Grandeur, adeptly directed by Loretto Greco. This fictional talkfest between Scott-Heron and a younger journalist is revelatory and engaging and will be appreciated by those looking for intellectual and social exchange.
As suggested by the title, the playwright respects Scott-Heron’s contributions. The protagonist caresses poetic lines and produces perceptive insights. Yet the play is not an unqualified paean. Scott-Heron’s addiction to crack cocaine and the effect that it had on his mental faculties and quality of life loom large. Despite his successes, Ong depicts him as cloistered, declining, narrow-gauged, and economically subsistent – one Coke or Fanta and one crack rock at a time. Yet the character challenges the notion that fancy digs with sunlit rooms are for everyone. Perhaps this is his “best of all possible worlds,” or in his words, it reflects “having the right to live as you wish.” In the world of Grandeur, we hear echoes of the fictional Finding Forrester or of another true life reclusive, J. D. Salinger.
The story plays out in one afternoon in 2010. The reality is that Scott-Heron has gone 16 years between studio albums, but critical acclaim is expected on the one just released. Parenthetically, the playwright, while otherwise productive, went 25 years between plays.
The entire play is built around an interview by Steve Barron, a journalist representing New York Review of Books. It takes place in a living room designed by Hana Kim, cluttered with books, mementos, and symbolically, a large number of lamps, some working and others not. Scott-Heron’s milieu is dim to the extent that the journalist asks to turn more lights on. Lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer cleverly increases light amplitude from the lamps at an imperceptible rate to achieve a comfort level for the audience yet maintain the sense of dimness.
Grandeur clearly examines the psyche of an accomplished, yet troubled, creative genius. Emblematic of many greats who have faded, but in a sense reconciled to his fate, he notes that greatness is a young man’s game.
But the narrative also looks into the oft times conflicted roles and conflictual relationship between interviewer and interviewee. The principal character is seasoned and wily and has recently aborted interviews with other distinguished publications. He knows how he wants to be perceived and what favors he wants. Barron is young and looking to break through. A journalist often digs for that special gem that will sparkle and distinguish this interview from the pedestrian norm. But what misrepresentations is one willing to make in order to get that to happen? What accommodations is one willing to offer?
The two combatants constantly joust on an uneven playing field. Among other charges, the older man imputes derisive meaning to the younger man’s clothes and hair and at times questions his integrity. Barron needs Scott-Heron more that vice versa. So he doesn’t have the same free rein to challenge the older man in return, but he does have the advantage of prior knowledge. And the longer they are together, the more the power balance is prone to shift.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting physical and cerebral match for Gil Scott-Heron than Carl Lumbly. He magnificently represents the central figure’s complexity – his diminished but still formidable mental acuity, his urges, his fervor, his resignation, and ultimately, his vulnerabilities. His performance alone makes the show worthwhile.
Grandeur by Han Ong is produced by Magic Theatre and plays at their stage at Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco through June 25, 2017.