Gil Scott-Heron’s “Grandeur” is Eclipsed by Addiction

Grandeur, a play by Han Ong produced by Magic Theatre in San Francisco, is an intimate play about a larger than life performer, Gil Scott-Heron.  A black writer, poet, performer and political activist, Scott- Heron is famous for being the “Godfather of Rap”. His words and his songs have been sampled over and over, by Salt-N-Pepa, Kanye, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Rihanna and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. His influence on rap and hip hop as as artforms and as tools of political expression cannot be overstated. This play takes place in a single afternoon after his final album release I’m New Here, 40 years after his heyday, and many years into a crippling crack addiction. Grandeur is playwright Han Ong’s return to the stage after a sixteen-year absence. One of youngest recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant,his talent shines through in this nimble and absorbing play. It’s a tour de force for Carl Lumbly who plays Gil Scott-Heron with a sharpness and a humor that stings and entertains. And yet, fourteen months ago when I was a member of the Magic Theatre Literary committee, I read the play and had strong reservations.

Sitting the audience, I was prepared to have my mind changed, and in many ways it was. Dialogue that had fallen flat to me on the page crackled onstage with the direction of Magic’s Artistic Director Loretta Greco. The underwriting of Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), the aspiring New York Review of Books journalist interviewing Gil Scott-Heron, seemed more of a deliberate choice to make him an everyman rather than a lack of interest by Ong in anyone who wasn’t Gil Scott-Heron. But the question that had caused me to reject the play in my initial reading still filled the back of my mind: Why tell this Gil Scott-Heron story?

Grandeur is a good play. It has on a refreshingly straight forward, non moralistic attitude towards drug addiction. Scott-Heron is affected by his crack use, but he’s not a groveling, pathetic lesson. He’s an ornery, expressive old man with a gift for one liners, little patience, and a knack for getting people to give him what he wants. The single flashback that portrays him completely and uncontrollably high as the train rushes onward, and tweets about his career and downfall flash by is one of the most inventive and visually interesting scenes in the entire play. Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks), his honorary niece and caretaker is a sharp reminder of all the women who keep the careers of famous men afloat without receiving any of the credit. Jordan’s acting talent shines in the second act as his anger at Scott-Heron for losing his heroic luster bursts through, and it becomes clear that Scott-Heron represents Barron’s deepest ambitions and his greatest fears as a black man and writer.

There is only so much space on the stage. Every theater company, every year wades through hundreds of options to decide what four, six, eight stories are worthy of being told that season on their stage, and even in the most progressive of theaters there is a comfort in familiarity. We produce and watch the same shocking and “edgy” stories over and over again until they become part of our consciousness. Lesbians die, women are madonnas and whores, and black men are felled by drugs. On stages across the country, smart, accomplished playwrights examined these tropes, they investigate them, they burst them open, they show their flaws and why these stereotypes are harmful. Yyet the logical next step of writing plays that don’t include these stereotypes, that don’t rely on exploiting the pain of minorities or have women who are people and not metaphors seems ever evasive.
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Grandeur is a play about a man who’s most famous work is “The Revolution will not be Televised”, but this Gil Scott-Heron story is entirely non-threatening for white consumption. It’s is a safe story, centered around his crack addiction, and with very little about his music and almost nothing about his politics. It’s a play about a writer’s last hurrah long after his drive for success has dried up. A story that Ong, who’s spoken publically about falling out of love with dramatic writing after staggering initial success may have felt a strong kinship with.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to explore stories about forgotten icons after the world has moved on without them, and telling stories about addiction without moralizing is an impulse I applaud. But every theater makes choices. Staging a play about a black man famous for his anger at the treatment of black Americans and his revolutionary music that expressed it, and stripping all of that away to make a story about addiction that ends with Scott-Heron taunting his interviewer saying “don’t you wanna look away?” as he lights up, the glow of the crack pipe in the dark theater as the final image the audience sees, is a choice. Similar choices are made in theaters across America everyday, and it says something about the stories that we’re comfortable telling, and what we see as worthy of our time, money, and stages.

Grandeur runs through June 25th. find more information here

Cast

Gil Scott-Heron: Carl Lumbly

Steve Barron: Rafael Jordan

Miss Julie: Safiya Fredericks

Creative Team

Set & Projection Design: Hana S. Kim

Costume Design: Alex Jaeger

Lighting Design: Ray Oppenheimer

Sound Design: Sara Huddleston

Stage Manager: Kevin Johnson

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez

Director of Production: Sara Huddleston

Props Design: Jacquelyn Scott

Local Casting Sonia Fernandez

Press Photos: Jennifer Reiley

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

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Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe