With the low light generated from a few shaded lamps, we gradually become aware of a reed-thin figure folded into an overstuffed armchair. He is almost a silhouette.
The seated man is silent, then takes a few deep breaths. A tentative voice calls from offstage, “Mr. Heron? Sir? Can you hear me?”
The figure in the chair, now revealed as an elderly African American, grizzled and white-haired, responds, “My voice still travels, My body long unraveled, I am the vacuum who speaks, Is it the vacuum you seek? The vacuum is hunger and sorrow but it knows your name, not yesterday’s but tomorrow’s”
Who is this mysterious man and will we be able to follow his cryptic poetry? Who is the offstage seeker? We’re not even five minutes into the play, and we are already on a psychic roller coaster ride, spellbound.
The spell is cast by the brilliant writing of Han Ong in the world premier of his play Grandeur, staged by the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. The drama takes place over one afternoon late in the life of Gil Scott-Heron, a musical legend of the 1960s and ‘70s, who, because he was one of the first popular performers to speak poetic lyrics to jazz or soul music, has been dubbed “the godfather of modern hip-hop.”
“I wrote Grandeur because I found Gil Scott-Heron heroic — tragic-heroic, comic-heroic, heroic despite (or maybe because) of his self-decimation — and I wanted to remind people of his existence, his status as a giant,” Ong says.
It is the latest accomplishment of Philippine-born playwright and novelist, who in 1997 at the age of 29, was one of the youngest people to win a MacArthur Genius Award.
Ong’s plays have been staged at some of the most prestigious theaters in the world, including the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Public Theater in New York, and London’s Almeida Theatre.
Ong grew up in the Philippines, and speaks Tagalog and Mandarin, which he learned in school. A self-defined sickly child, he says he “stayed indoors and discovered books. My reading was a passion that led very shortly into wanting to write.” He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 16, settled with his family in Los Angeles, and dropped out of high school to pursue his love of writing. His parents did not approve.
As a student in the Philippines, Ong remembers reading Jose Rizal and Nick Joaquin, but his major literary influences come from further afield. “Chekhov and Beckett are the two playwrights I love most – nobody even comes close, not even Shakespeare,” he says, adding, “But do I write like Chekhov? That would be the day! Do I write like Beckett? Why even try?”
Currently based in New York City, Ong, the author of more than three dozen plays, often speaks at college campuses and Asian American writers organizations, encouraging younger Filipino Americans to explore the arts as a way of life
During a hiatus from playwriting, Ong wrote several acclaimed novels. The first, Fixer Chao, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2001, follows a Filipino street hustler in New York. It was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. The second, The Disinherited, by the same publisher in 2004, takes place in the Philippines and addresses the dilemma of an Americanized son of a Negros sugar plantation owner who returns home after the patriarch’s death. Shocked that he has received a huge inheritance, he determines to give away his wealth, dismaying his traditional family when he shares his cash with Manila slum dwellers and a male prostitute. Both novels were highly acclaimed by the critics.
Grandeur marks a return to the Magic Theatre, which staged Ong’s first play, Reasons to Live, Reason to Live. Half. No Reason, in 1992. He credits his close friend author Jessica Hagedorn with this homecoming, after 16 years of being away from the stage. He was intrigued with Scott-Heron and wrote the play in 2014.
“I am a great admirer of Gil Scott-Heron,” he told me on the eve of opening night, “and I wanted to bring this giant to the stage. He was such a beloved and respected man of music and letters, and then he fell prey to crack cocaine. It was heartbreaking.”
“Jessica asked if she could read the script, and told me she loved it.” Ong recalls. “She passed it on to Loretta Greco, the artistic director of the Magic who had directed her play Dogeaters there last year.”
Greco decided to include the play in the Magic’s 50th anniversary season. She also directed the provocative drama.
The plot centers around a meeting between a young journalist sent to interview the musician for the New York Review of Books. Scott- Heron, who called himself a “bluesologist,” seems open to him at first, although his brainy and protective adopted niece, Miss Julie, is skeptical. “How come after 40 years are they now interested in Gil Scott-Heron who they have never been interested in before? Have they ever written a word about the godfather of rap?”
She is also wary of her uncle’s wiles. She warns the young journalist not to be manipulated by the great man – not to let him play his Ali fight videos, and definitely not to bring him anything stronger than Fanta.
But Scott-Heron, played by renowned stage and television actor Carl Lumbly, awes the adoring journalist with dazzling poetics, philosophical koans and literary references to Chester Himes and Langston Hughes. He even allows the young man to turn on a few lamps in the cave-like room, but not all of them.
Ong’s command of the idioms and cultural tropes of U.S. society, and African American life in particular, is stunning. All three cast members are African American, and their language, challenges and perceptions are completely believable. In addition, Ong’s portrayal of one of America’s most complex cultural icons is multi-faceted and riveting. Scott-Heron’s words are so reminiscent of his songs that I assumed they were from his own writing until I read a disclaimer in the program, “All poetry and lyrics attributed to Gil Scott-Heron were written by the author, in the style of Mr. Scott-Heron.”
Scott-Heron’s most famous recording, The Revolution will Not Be Televised, becomes a catch-phrase in the play: after some intimate conversations about music, politics, racism and death, the aging musician tells the journalist that he doesn’t want to get a modern TV because all the neighbors will want to come in and watch. The young man, growing confident, quips, “The television will not be revolutionized.” The audience titters at the clever twist. But Scott-Heron retorts, “You’re not the first person to make that joke,” admonishing the emboldened journalist not to become too familiar.
Ong, whose soft-spoken manner belies his fierce intellect, says that he chose to write about Scott-Heron “because he was a forgotten man” and he hoped to “reintroduce us to Gil, and to introduce him to a new generation.”
The long-time fan hopes Grandeur will encourage people to return to the songs of the prolific jazz poet, who died in 2011 just a year after releasing his first album in 16 years, I’m New Here.
“If we have done our job right – the cast, crew, me – you will walk away with a full human experience. You will be reminded of the glory of Gil Scott-Heron, as well as the heartbreak and bottomless tragedy that he experienced.”
In one of the more melancholy scenes in the play, Scott-Heron tells the young man, “We always go to the sad ones. They are haunted and they are haunting.”
“This play is a manifestation of Gil Scott-Heron haunting me,” Ong explains. “It would be great if audiences were haunted by the Gil I put on stage.”
On opening night, the playwright, dressed in casual clothes, horn-rimmed glasses and a baseball cap, sat anonymously in the back of the theater. But when the audience gave the play a standing ovation, he must have realized that he had achieved his goal.
Special Discount for Positively FIlipino Readers
Note: Grandeur will run until June 25. Readers of Positively Filipino can use the code GRANDEUR20 for 20% off tickets to GRANDEUR. [This offer expires on June 25, 2017. Discount is available on all seats. All seats are best available. Offer not valid on previous purchases and cannot be combined with any other offer. All tickets are subject to availability. Subject to change. Service charges apply to all orders.]
For tickets: http://magictheatre.org/
Elaine Elinson traveled with the FTA Show in the Philippines and is the coauthor, with Walden Bello, of Development Debacle.
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