(l.) Carl Lumbly as Gil Scott-Heron, (c.) Safiya Fredericks as Miss Julie and (r.) Rafael Jordan as Steve Barron
Playwright and novelist Han Ong returns to Magic Theatre with his first play in 16 years, the World Premiere of “Grandeur.” “Grandeur” is an apt title delineating its subject, the renown Gil Scott-Heron of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” fame. Ong introduces us to his imagined Heron, played by the esteemed actor of TV, film and theatre, Carl Lumbly. Director Loretta Greco saw Lumbly’s Heron as a old, ruined, shambling man, yet who has not lost his wits. At this point in his life, he lives in a dimly lit (by design), cluttered, apartment with his feisty, no-nonsense, adopted niece/caregiver Julie or Miss Julie, played by the remarkable Safiya Fredericks. On the floor, shelves, and tables, precariously stacked books, videos, DVDs, and LPs threaten to avalanche. A pre-digital TV set, record players, and tape recorders perch on shelves and side-tables along with standing and tipped over table lamps- whether or not they work depends on a magic touch. The imaginative set, which should be applauded, was designed by Hana S. Kim, with props by Jacquelyn Scott.
Heron is visited by a young reporter/essayist, Steve Barron (beautfully and believably played by Rafael Jordan). Barron claims that he writes for the New York Review of Books (NYRB) and has come to interview the off-putting legend for an article. He admits he is more than a fan, he idolizes him. He has read and is familiar with his written as well as musical work; Barron quotes from his poems and brings up the fact that the man is known as the “Godfather of rap.”
Jordan gives Barron emotion, confusion and internal conflict. He had written an essay about Heron when he had once encountered the nodding-off, drooling, almost unconscious genius on the subway, and has difficulty coming to terms with how this brilliant man became a crack-addicted wreck. This scene is treated as a flash-back. We do not move from Heron’s apartment, but by ingenious effects of lights and sound (Ray Oppenheimer and Sara Huddleston), we are on the subway. Towards the end of the play, Heron is suffering withdrawal. He needs his “rock.” Much of the dialogue between Barron and Heron is cerebral, rhythmic, poetic bantering. Heron teases Barron about his identity, commenting on the way he’s dressed. They exchange ideas about philosophy, whether or not Heron is the devil; and whether Barron will be a good guy and go get crack for his hero. A heart-wrenching verbal struggle ensues; Barron breaks down, surprising Heron and which serves as a revelation to Barron himself.
Should you be a playgoer who likes action, structure, spelled-out conflict, a beginning, middle, and end, resolution, and short, simply-worded speeches, this is not the play for you. However, by not giving “GRANDEUR” a chance you will deprive yourself of richness: the richness of intellectual dialogue, of philosophical ideas, hearing the rhythm of Heron’s words that sing and soar; and you will be deprived of the richness of the casts’ superb acting Suffice it to say: See “Grandeur” and become enriched.