'The Great Khan': A Better Superhero Origin Story than History Lesson

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Leon Jones and Brian Rivera in 'The Great Khan' at SF Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli)

You may have read that history is “written by the winners”—those who conveniently leave whole populations out of their selective narratives, and turn their enemies into monsters. European History, often taught as “de facto” history, frequently elides whole continents and accomplishments from its focus. Even so, you’ve probably heard of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, who built an empire so large and so notable it simply refuses to be forgotten.

In Michael Gene Sullivan’s The Great Khan, co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, audiences not only get a kind of superhero origin story for Khan (played by an affable Brian Rivera), but a close encounter, as he pops in through the window to “hang out” with a teenager named Jayden (a thoroughly convincing Leon Jones). Not only has Jayden been assigned a school report on Khan, but in the process of doing so, he’s come to really admire Khan’s facility for waging war. (Jayden’s own warrior skills have been mainly confined to his GameBoy, a device he eagerly introduces to Khan in an attempt at bonding.)

Leon Jones introduces Genghis Khan to his video game collection in 'The Great Khan' at SF Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli)

But Jayden has his own superhero origin story, having performed a fairly heroic act in his old neighborhood. It's an act so bold and so brave that he’s been effectively forced to change schools, cut ties, and lay low. No wonder he’s drawn to the seemingly fearless Khan—so much so, he’s perhaps summoned him from the afterlife to play “Call of Duty,” and talk battle tactics. In his eyes, Khan represents the “baddest of the bad.” And if there’s one thing being the baddest will protect you from, it’s a schoolyard vendetta.

Meanwhile, Jayden’s overly enthusiastic history report partner Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) has been busy researching Khan’s backstory for their class presentation. Gao-Ming pops in and out of the action to deliver a series of impassioned monologues: about Khan’s periods of imprisonment and exile, the violent murders of his parents, his admittedly swoon-y first love. True to the format, we get a high school report–level of mostly benign anecdotes, conveniently glossing over the reasons Gao-Ming’s mother might call him “just like Hitler,” and Jayden’s one moment of pushback on Khan’s own personal revisionism.

Kina Kantor gives a presentation in 'The Great Khan' at SF Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli)

Ultimately, Genghis Khan’s exploits—triumphal or terrible—are beside the point, despite his being the play’s titular character. What’s more central to the plot is that Jayden is navigating a particularly tough year with as much equanimity as he can muster without succumbing entirely to depression and rage. Working on the class project with Gao-Ming occasionally helps bring him out of his defensive shell, as do abrupt, often antagonistic midnight visits from the equally pent-up Ant (Jamella Cross), his last connection to his old neighborhood and school. Cross and Kantor flesh out their roles with engaging energy and believable fluster, tempering teenage angst with humor and candor.

Jamella Cross and Leon Jones in 'The Great Khan' at SF Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli)

It’s when Jayden navigates his increasingly complicated relationship with his single mother, Crystal (Velina Brown), that his character really comes alive. The natural onstage chemistry between Jones and Brown is the play’s beating heart. Brown with her bear hugs and gentle teasing. Jones with his sulky teenage reticence and reluctant affection. The way they size each other up in the moment, each testing the boundaries of how far they can push each other, and how far they can reach out and hold tight. Director Darryl V. Jones gives them plenty of space to breathe, and their familial bond is stronger for it.

Velina Brown and Leon Jones play video games in 'The Great Khan' at SF Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli)

Less strong is Jayden’s bond with his unexpected warlord guest, who never quite settles into the mundane rhythms of Jayden’s undercover life. No matter how often Khan reassures Jayden that they are “much the same,” as Jayden does his best to contextualize the contemporary Black experience for him, it never quite feels that they are on the same page, or even reading the same book. Sullivan stuffs his script with so many weighted histories—from the Mongols to MOVE—they start to blend into the background, adding detail but not depth.

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Overall, what Sullivan is best at is giving his teenage characters dimension and vulnerability in a way that never strikes a cloying note. They are moving into adulthood while still clinging on to the remnants of childhood. They are wise and witty and weird, and when the chips are down they frequently turn to technology: games, Youtube, Discord. I could see The Great Khan as a great choice for high school students looking for scripts to read or to perform that speak more immediately to their lived experiences. It might not teach them everything there is to know about Genghis Khan—but it will definitely provide a lesson in self-acceptance and survival.

'The Great Khan' runs through Nov. 13 at SF Playhouse. Vaccinations required. Tickets and details here.