At the end of his Dec. 8, 1980 concert in Oakland, Stevie Wonder stepped to the edge of the stage to deliver the news of John Lennon's murder. Wonder was eloquent; his impromptu eulogy has the feeling of one God speaking on the demise of another.
Standing next to the pop icon on stage that night was a tall, graceful man who also possessed something of the divine in him. Even then, at 31 years of age, Gil Scott-Heron had a haunted splendor. For the multi-talented novelist, poet, proto-rapper, political provocateur and musician, the ensuing years of drug addiction and public exile were just beginning. That haunted look would soon turn into a full-blown ravaging.
So I was eagerly anticipating what Han Ong, the award-winning novelist of Fixer Chao and a playwright with his own shifty sensibility, might do with the figure of Scott-Heron in Grandeur, a Magic Theatre world premiere. Even the title Grandeur seems a perfect reflection of the man who gave us both the searing “Whitey on the Moon” and the gentle “I Think I’ll Call It Morning.” With all that rage and beauty roiling in him, I imagine that Ong must have seen in Scott-Heron a kind of modern-day tragic hero of the Greek sort.
Grandeur begins, appropriately, in extreme darkness. The stage is as dimly lit as can be, and stays that way for some time. Steve Barron, a young African-American journalist writing for the New York Review of Books, struggles to find his way to the door of Scott-Heron's basement apartment. He’s looking to write a career-making article on the fallen musician, whose comeback album, I’m New Here, has spurred a great deal of interest in the man, his work, and the sorry state of his life.
The always-terrific Carl Lumbly nails Scott-Heron's unmistakable voice and lofty, ambling gait. For a moment, you feel as if you’re in a ghost story -- that is, until a tsunami of clichés comes crashing through after about 12 minutes. From then on, you know you’re not watching a play suffused with the spirit of Scott-Heron, but rather a work intent on turning him into a kind of spiritual sitcom dad who does nutty things while dispensing dollops of streetwise wisdom.
The uptight, topsider-wearing, haute-bourgeois striver Barron isn’t so much a character as a foil for this version of Scott-Heron to parry a series of well-timed jokes. I’d be lying if I said parts of it weren’t vaguely amusing: Scott-Heron rapping about Fanta soda or coming up with crazy schemes to get Barron to buy him a bit of crack cocaine. Yet Ong’s desire to please is dispiriting, and his skirting around the horrors of addiction is an insult to anyone interested in, or who understands, what it feels like to live in a state of unending despair.
Rather than finding an aesthetic correlative for a stunning life, Ong merely checks off themes. When the portentously named Miss Julie -- Scott-Heron's caretaker and a 42-year old Columbia undergrad with a temper -- enters towards the end of the evening, her sole purpose is to make sure that we understand the play’s many lessons. She delivers a number of correctives about race, fame, art, and adulation at the expense of the too-naive Barron and then leaves. It’s as if we’re being reassured that something significant has happened.
In these times, it’s hard to think of a more fascinating and emblematic artist than Scott-Heron. His mystery should demand great art. But Ong’s retreat into commercial sitcom aesthetics is just another example of how timid our playwrights and theaters have become. They don’t deserve Gil Scott-Heron -- neither the artist nor the junkie.
'Grandeur' runs through Sunday, Jun. 25, at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.