The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”
– Gil Scott-Heron, profiled by Alec Wilkinson for The New Yorker, August 2010
I was a few minutes late showing up for this opening week performance. I had my afro out, my notepad ready, and wore one of my favorite shirts, only for SF’s infamous public transport to fail me once again. Still, it was only by about five minutes, so The Magic staff took mercy on me and let me in the back. By the time the play was over, I started to wonder if higher powers were just trying to spare me.
I went into the play with high expectations. I mean, The Magic putting on a world premiere production about one of the 20th century’s boldest voices, as portrayed by one of today’s best stage actors? How could I resist?
And as I shuffled through the dark of the theatre to find my seat – the action already underway – the intricate set design and an already-engrossing performance by Carl Lumbly told me I was in for something special. What I got was a playwright’s misguided “Gary Stu” story co-starring a genuine genius.
Steve Barron has always wanted to meet Gil Scott-Heron. As a young Black writer, it’s no surprise that the lauded author and poet was one of the young man’s biggest influences. So when Barron’s position at the New York Review of Books affords him the opportunity to meet his hero, he jumps at the chance.
What he finds is a man the shadow of his former self: old; drug-addicted; possessed of a spotty memory; and under the care of his “niece,” whom he calls “Miss Julie”, as he hides himself away from sunlight in a junk-riddled New York apartment. As the hours tick away and Steve’s questions probe deeper, he finds just how far removed is the man in front of him from the icon he worshipped. What’s more, Steve soon becomes complicit in the author’s most harmful vice.
As I watched this play, a single word kept popping into my head: Basquiat. Not the late, great Haitian-American artist who made graffiti under the nom de plume “Samo,” but rather Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of which Jean-Michel is the subject. As grateful as we all should be for that film introducing Jeffrey Wright to the world, multiple viewings reveal it to be lacking any real insight into the artistic process (which is odd, given that Schnabel, like Basquiat, is a painter), and simplistic in its portrayal of a Black artist.
Schnabel’s approach is mirrored in this play by Han Ong: both of their subjects are Black artists from New York whose battles with substance abuse would come to define them as much as the groundbreaking work they produced; both that film and this play feature characters who are clearly shameless avatars for screenwriter and playwright (Schnabel inserts himself via Gary Oldman’s character “Albert Milo,” whilst Ong’s affinity for Scott-Heron is personified via Steve); and both are by non-Black writers who can only approach Blackness from an outsider’s perspective – which is a fault when Black characters are the central focus.
If you’ve read the quote I use up top, feel free to click on the link in the cited date. Ong’s play is essentially a dramatization of that article, with Black writer Steve Barron in place of White writer Alec Wilkinson, and “Miss Julie” a fictionalized version of Miss Mimi. Unable to use Scott-Heron’s actual writings in his script, Ong’s attempts to mimic his voice – both the literary and the personal – fall flat. For instance, it’s no secret that the so-called “Godfather of Rap” had a complex love/hate relationship with the art form, but it leaned more towards love. (Scott-Heron himself often refuted his title, and – as seen in the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company… – said that Melvin van Peebles is just as worthy of the distinction.) But Ong goes a step further and shows Scott-Heron flat out hating rap, in spite of hypocritically being the benefactor of its frequent sampling of his work. This leads to a dull rant against Jay-Z and Kanye West that serves as such a shameless presentation of authorship bias, you half-expect Geraldo Rivera to one day cite it in his lifelong quest to have rap music banned.
And that’s the problem with the entire play: the author’s poor grasp on reality. A plot twist later reveals that Barron’s hero worship of Scott-Heron is such that he literally tries writing in what-he-believes-to-be the author’s voice. This would be a great way to comment on such a failing, but Ong never shows himself to be smarter than his characters. He is Steve Barron for all the wrong reasons, and it is painful to watch.
Thankfully, Carl Lumbly is an absolute pleasure to watch, from start to finish. Even in certain scenes when all I could see was the back of his head (I was sitting audience-left of the thrust stage), he did more character work with his body language than most actors do chewing the scenery for hours. He channels Scott-Heron without trying to do an SNL impression of the man. Lumbly’s goal is to portray a once-great fire soon to be extinguished, and his performance shows just what’s lost when it’s gone forever.
Unfortunately, Rafael Jordan’s Steve Barron is unable to stand toe-to-toe with a heavyweight like Lumbly. In addition to being saddled with possibly the worst dreadlock wig since Jack Black in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Jordan never shows the same understanding of his character as do his co-stars. Much better is Safiya Fredericks as Miss Julie. Friends have often praised Fredericks to me, but this is the first time I’ve seen her perform. The praise was well worth it: she finely balances Miss Julie’s nuances without letting her devolve into a one-dimensional battle axe or wilting blossom.
Also well-done were the play’s technical aspects. The aforementioned set by Hana S. Kim is a wonderful hoarder’s nightmare, full of stacked books, multiple lamps (some of which work), and copius amounts of trash through which the actors are still easily able to move. Kudos to both she and prop designer Jacquelyn Scott for all the intricate detail they put into suggesting a cramped space on an open stage. Having never been to New York, I can’t judge the validity of prod. director Sara Huddleston’s street noises, but deafening subway screech at the top of Act 2 was effective, if nothing else. If not for Steve Barron’s horrible wig, costumer Alex Jaeger’s contributions would be perfect. The lighting work of Ray Oppenheimer is wonderfully atmospheric and natural, even when using spotlights and other methods of drawing focus.
It’s natural for someone to wish they had the skills of a great artist; it’s quite another to make your mimicry of said artist your only contribution to the craft. The script for Grandeur wants to be both a tribute a great artist, as well as an examination of his life once his muse abandoned him.
Though bolstered by two strong performances and really good directorial choices, the show is ultimately let down by its text. And in a story about writers, that’s the worst thing you could do.
Grandeur is scheduled to run until 25th of June at The Magic Theatre at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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