|Carl Lumbly is music legend Gil Scott-Heron and Rafael Jordan is journalist Steve Barron in Grandeur at the Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.|
In Grandeur, the young person who must evade Scott-Heron’s traps is one Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), a freelance journalist on assignment for the New York Review of Books. (It’s a somewhat distracting coincidence that this character’s name is just one consonant away from “Steve Bannon.”) Steve is an earnest and preppy black man whose face is hardly visible behind his mop of hair—it’s like he knows he shouldn’t steal the spotlight from Gil, a much stronger personality with many more stories to tell.
We also meet Scott-Heron’s caretaker, Julie (Safiya Fredericks), who mixes abiding affection for the old man with exasperation at his shortcomings, not least of which is his addiction to crack cocaine. Julie is also on hand to inform Steve of his role in all of this: “You’re death. You know that right? I mean not death-death but […] like a herald.” This heavy-handed metaphor gets under Steve’s skin and causes him to have an unconvincing breakdown near the top of Act 2.
Much more compelling is Scott-Heron’s anti-capitalist political rant, revealing his ambivalence toward the rappers who came after him. They sample his records and call him the “Godfather of Rap,” but their materialistic values are far different from his own. There’s also an implied contrast between the way Scott-Heron plays with language in his jazzman-poet fashion and the way a reporter uses language to pin down facts with precision.
Grandeur is obviously an attempt to wrestle with Scott-Heron’s legacy and his contradictions. It takes place in the last year of the musician’s life, just after he has released his first album in 16 years. (While Steve Barron and his NYRB article are fictitious, The New Yorker published an excellent profile of Scott-Heron, written by Alec Wilkinson, around this time. I’ve read hundreds of New Yorker profiles but this one has stuck with me.) But although Scott-Heron was undoubtedly a dramatic personality—brilliant and flawed, irascible and damaged—Grandeur is not, itself, a very dramatic show. It’s too bad that a play about an innovative and charismatic musician should have such a well-worn structure and setup.
Grandeur, by Han Ong, directed by Loretta Greco, is playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through June 25. More information here.