The Great Khan by Michael Gene Sullivan is positioned to be a dynamic ensemble play that examines our troubled global history through the eyes of contemporary high schoolers. The theater immediately establishes a youthful setting with vibrant lighting and Chance the Rapper playing over the speakers. In the first scene, we meet a guarded Jayden who is shaken awake by an armed intruder, a young girl named Ant. Redtwist Theatre’s summary of this play promises that these are our two main characters. This premise is lost well within the first act, and Ant quickly becomes a background character on Jayden’s journey.
Simon Gebremedhin as Jayden earnestly attempts to bring complexity and charming adolescence to what is essentially a shallow main character whose personal development has dangerous implications. His primary struggle is rooted in how the sexual assault of Ant (Monique Marshaun), a girl at his former school, has affected him. Jayden’s big triumph that signifies he has come out from his shell is a midterm project for which, as far as I can tell, his classmate Gao-Ming (Josie Mi) has done all the work. Jayden’s character hinges on the trauma and talents of the young women around him. This problematic relationship with the other femme characters could have been resolved if this play were a true ensemble piece where Ant and Goa-Ming shared the stage, and given more control over their narratives.
As the play progresses, Ant and Goa-Ming’s roles shrink further and further into Jayden’s background. Gao-Ming, the studious, makeup YouTuber, is featured prominently in one scene with Jayden in the first act but then pushed aside after intermission and reduced to a narrative crutch that attempts to hold the disjointed scenes together. The second act feels as if it is from an entirely different world with the introduction of Genghis Khan (Steffen Diem Garcia). A quarter of the play is spent in a lengthy back-and-forth between Jayden and a manifested Genghis Khan. The scenes are not only a departure from the tone and structure established in the first act, they further muddle what it is this play is trying to say.
The Great Khan takes two hours to tell a story that could be told more effectively in 90 minutes. The listless pacing of the production is exacerbated by languid scene transitions where Jayden changes into various forms of comfy clothes. Save for one key moment of spectacle where Genghis Khan makes his grand exit, The Great Khan slogs directionless through its underutilized runtime. Is The Great Khan about the white-washed history curriculum that is taught in schools, or is it about a young man’s struggle to find strength against the threat of enemies? Rather than working together to present a complex representation of the high school experience for BIPOC teenagers, these two themes shift focus from scene to scene.
Director Jamal Howard relies on technical aspects to fill the gaps in this fragmented story. Scenic design by Rose Johnson and costume design by Jazmin Aurora Medina work together marvelously to communicate Jayden’s change over time with an inspired physical representation of what the dialogue clumsily communicates. The primary set piece, Jayden’s bedroom, transforms from a drab, box-laden clothes pile to a joyful celebration of his nerdy fandoms. Costuming mirrors this as Jayden embraces his teenage interests and trades in dark, baggy clothing for a colorful wardrobe. Piper Kirchhofer’s lighting design brings much-needed energy to the production, managing to establish both intimacy and grandeur in the small storefront theater. All production elements convey more character development and world-building than is accomplished by the text alone, but the issues at the heart of The Great Khan as a play still shine through.
The arts and culture industry is still recovering from COVID-19’s impact on live performances. Audiences are far more scrutinizing of their time spent in public, and this affects not just the theatre companies but the surrounding community that benefits from visiting audiences. Play selection has never been more important, and The Great Khan by Michael Gene Sullivan was a disappointing choice to start Redtwist Theatre’s 2023 Season. The confusing and unfinished script is an unwavering obstacle that is impossible to overcome without additional development opportunities.
Companies like Redtwist Theatre do not have that luxury right now. Rolling world premieres are a powerful tool to promote emerging voices in our industry, but these programs also have a responsibility to playwrights that new work will not be produced with such glaring technical and narrative flaws.
The Great Khan runs at Redtwist Theatre until February 26.
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Jayden – Simon Gebremedhin
Ant – Monique Marshaun
Crystal – LaTorious Givens
Gao-Ming – Josie Mi
Mr. Adams – Bryan Breau
Temujin – Steffen Diem Garcia
Playwright – Michael Gene Sullivan
Director – Jamal Howard
Casting Director – Shariba Rivers
Stage Manager – Alanna Young
Scenic Designer and Charge Artist – Rose Johnson
Technical Director – Dusty Brown
Props Master – Henry Sebastian Bender
Costume Designer – Jazmin Aurora Medina
Lighting Designer – Piper Kirchhofer
Sound Designer – Max Cichon
Production Photos – Aaron Reese Boseman