By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent
The world premiere of The Great Khan by Michael Jean Sullivan at the San Francisco Playhouse is an ambitious stab at tackling race, insecurities, and growing up.
Sullivan not only took on negative stereotypes and expectations of what Black teenagers are supposed to become, but he added an additional and often complex relationship between the Asian American and African American communities through the eyes of a historical character, Genghis Khan.
In a world where character development is often lost in favor of special effects and slapstick or raunchy comedy, Sullivan and director Darryl Jones give each cast member an opportunity to grow and flourish in this 2 hour and six-minute production.
The first act gets bogged down in excessive dialogue that at times lacked energy and sometimes purpose. Yet as the young teens matured, particularly Jayden as played by Leon Jones and Jamella Cross, as Ant, the audience is slowly reeled in until the comedic appearance of Genghis Khan, as portrayed by Brian Rivera, gives the show a great lift. I only wish Genghis had appeared sooner as the show could use some tightening.
Jayden and Ant cross paths in a traumatic episode that changes their lives and their outlook. Both take on tough exteriors as a coping mechanism while balancing their desires to be happy and carefree high school students. Both also live under the expectations of society that often sets a low bar for Black teens.
As the story progresses, we learn that it’s not only teenagers who put up false fronts, but so do the grown-ups. Jayden’s mom Crystal, played by Velina Brown, struggles with raising Jayden alone as her husband works overseas while Jayden’s world history teacher, played by Adam KuveNiemann, can’t admit he knows very little about African American history.
One lesson he leaves with Jayden is that the winners get to set the rules. It’s the winners who get to make the decision and in world history, Europeans rule the world. Or do they?
Genghis Khan challenges that notion, but even he has to acknowledge, his tough-guy image isn’t always what it seems.
Kina Kantor as Gao-Ming is Jayden’s school project partner as if the Asian American student in the class will teach Jayden good study habits. She also fills the historic gaps with her monologues about Genghis Khan, or Temujin, as we learn is Genghis’ real name.
Issues of Asian American identity also come up when Khan learns term s such as Asian, Chinatown, Japantown, and Koreatown and finally wonders where’s Mongoliatown?
While more could have been done with the theme of Black-Asian relations, give Sullivan credit for even bringing the Asian American experience into his play. Both the set design and lighting effects help move the play smoothly from scene to scene.
The Great Khan is a Network Rolling World Premere, and is co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse and the San Francisco
It plays Wednesdays through Sundays through November 13 and is available for in-person viewing or streaming.