Brian Rivera (left) and Jerome Beck in "The Great Khan." Photo by Rich Soublet
As a teacher, if I had a student who, given the assignment to write a paper on Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, instead wrote a gangsta rap song about him, something that he clearly put his whole heart and soul into, I’d be elated. That’s what learning should be all about: making knowledge your own.
Unfortunately for 16-year-old Jayden in Michael Gene Sullivan’s “The Great Khan,” his Genghis rap is dismissed by his mother as messing around. That’s only one of the frustrations young Jayden (Jerome Beck) endures in this rolling world premiere production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre directed by Jess McLeod.
There’s high school in general. His mother (Brittney M. Caldwell), who works overnights for the U.S. Postal Service, has moved them to a new neighborhood after Jayden prevented the attack of a teen girl (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) and in the process incurred the sworn vengeance of the would-be assailants. In the new school, Jayden, who is Black, is outnumbered and in his mind out of place. In history class in particular, he is compelled by his over-solicitous White teacher, Mr. Adams (Dylan John Seaton), to study what Jayden sees as White history made by old White guys.
Jayden would rather retreat to the imagined safety of his bedroom and play combat video games.
What safety? The girl he rescued, Ant, comes through his window pointing a gun at him, demanding he acknowledge that she didn’t require rescuing in the first place.
What’s a frightened, frustrated Black teenager in a racially unjust world to do?
The larger-than-life (and, we learn, misunderstood) persona of Genghis Khan, who rose from slave to emperor in the early 13th century, provides the answer.
Beck is awesome as Jayden, balancing the character’s anger over injustice with both his fear and insecurity over his future and a burning desire to be strong in the face of come-what-may. (Even in a hoodie-onesie, however, he doesn’t look like a 16 year old.) His scenes with Bartholomew are the play's most affecting, particularly those when each lowers their guard.
The theatrical device of “The Great Khan” is the appearance of the Mongol warrior himself (Brian Rivera, making us hopefully forget the ludicrous memory of John Wayne in the role in “The Conqueror”), who like Ant comes through Jayden’s bedroom window. Or we’re led to believe he does. Whether the time Genghis Khan spends with Jayden – playing video war games, comparing personal stories of conflict and oppression, learning from each other – is real or not isn’t the point. Jayden emerges empowered.
Jayden’s enlightenment and empowerment might have happened even without a Genghis Khan materialization, for he learns during the two-hour play about himself and what he's capable of through his wise and loving mother, through the contemplative Ant, and through his ardent personalizing of the Genghis Khan he reads about.
We all recognize that the theater needs young audiences. For high school seniors or college students, “The Great Khan” is a great place to start. It’s intelligent and thought-provoking but also a helluva lot of fun.
“The Great Khan” runs through March 27 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.