Review: “Grandeur” at the Magic Theatre

The Magic Theatre, which recently just mounted two legacy revivals of plays that were produced at the Magic early on in their respective lives (Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz), has returned to their original mission of producing world premieres with Han Ong’s new play Grandeur, about the life of Gil Scott-Heron, the spoken word poet who is generally considered to be, along with Coke La Rock, the very first rap artist. While the play is a rarefied experience and formally almost diametrically opposed to rap music, there’s no doubt that Grandeur is the first draft of a major American drama, and while it doesn’t appear to be finished in its current production, it still shows enough sparks of genius to be absolutely worth a trek to the Marina District in San Francisco to see it.

Taking place in 2010, one year before Scott-Heron’s death at the age of 62, Grandeur is set in his cramped and dimly lit apartment in the Bronx of New York City, where Steve, a young writer from the New York Review of Books, sets out to interview Scott-Heron about his recent “I’m New Here”, which was his first album released after a 16-year hiatus. Scott-Heron is being taken care of by one Miss Julie, whom he calls his niece, who is there to help mediate Scott-Heron’s addiction to crack cocaine.

From there the plot becomes a sort-of morality play, in which Steve has to decide how far he’s willing to go to get the kind of interview he wants, though something from his past prevents him from just taking the final steps. The central tension is not particularly involving, notably because there is only one way for it to end, but Grandeur is far more interested in the Black American experience, specifically in how the past interacts with the present and the obligations that each has to the other. Scott-Heron’s music is often determined to be part of the black power movement, his mannerisms and worldview distinctly a product of the 1970s, while Steve, also black, is the very image of a millennial college graduate who works at a New York newspaper. As much is left unsaid as is specified during Grandeur‘s hour and fifty minute runtime, which includes an intermission, but the weight of the proceedings is intensely felt by the audience and is achingly beautiful to boot.

It helps greatly that the linguistic stylings of Grandeur run towards the intensely poetic instead of the naturalistic, and while not all of the prose totally works, at its best it is simply beautiful, more than enough so to evoke the plays of Harold Pinter or Nilo Cruz. What we end up with is a play that, while certainly not consistent in its beauty, has enough on its mind and is eloquent enough in saying it that it hints of a major work of art yet to come, and is effective enough in its own right to be seen in its current production at the Magic Theatre without hesitation.

The Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Grandeur is not perfect, but it features a simply fantastic central performance. Carl Lumbly is one of the most beloved bay area actors, and his performance as Gil Scott-Heron in Grandeur is the best I’ve ever seen him. He is as magnetic as always, his performance here fascinatingly complex and always consistent. I was also struck by his singular ability for speaking poetry, his gravelly voice giving the words of the play the exact jolt of electricity needed for them to come to life. I sincerely hope that if Grandeur continues to be worked, and I think it absolutely should be, that he stays attached to the project. Barring that, it’s about time that we see him in a Shakespeare play. I think he’d make a magnificent King Lear.

The other two members of the cast: Rafael Jordan as Steve Barron and Safina Fredericks as Miss Julie, are both fine actors, but their voices are less suited for the poetry of Ong’s play and thus seem a little out at sea. Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco serves as director here, and her staging is focused and intelligent, though it could use a little bit of a slower pace in places. Hana S. Kim’s set design is absolutely right and Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting is suitably eerie.

I hope that a New York company picks up Grandeur for production at some point. It deserves to be seen by many and author Han Ong deserves the chance to continue to work on it. Who knows? It may end up as a singularly important piece of American theatre by the time we get to see it again.

Grandeur plays in San Francisco through June 25th. Tickets and information available here.

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