“History isn’t just names and dates, it’s people.” Michael Gene Sullivan’s new play with a rolling world premiere at Redtwist Theatre is a lively reminder that those who came before us are not just names to memorize in grade school. Their legacies, infamous or not, follow us in ways seen and unseen. For some, like Jayden, those seen consequences include systemic racism which he faces at a new school where he is one of the only Black students. While for others, like Gao Ming, seeing one’s place on the complicated historical spectrum is a ubiquitous reality of its own.
There’s a reason why Mr. Adams (Bryan Breau) can’t name twenty famous Black people unrelated to entertainment or sports when Jayden asks him to list them. And there’s a reason why the average person knows little of Genghis Khan beyond wartorn headlines. What we know of history is what was captured by the winners or by the oppressors. Or, more aptly from Jayden’s point-of-view: entire continents get set aside until white people find them. Recorded history itself is often as Genghis–a great Khan (con).
Simon Gebremedhin’s nerdy, charming Jayden is a kid just trying to do what’s right. Though he put himself in harm’s way by doing so, he stands up for others. A consequence of his heroism is that he and his mom have to move to a new place to avoid further conflict. Meanwhile Ant (Monique Marshaun) is a seemingly ever-present reminder of Jayden’s decision, popping in and out of his life at-will. When a report on Genghis Khan brings a new person into Jayden’s life, Gao (the delightful Josie Mi) shows Jayden that people are more than the facts of their lives.
Seeing this production on the Lunar New Year felt like an appropriate homage to the holiday. While the devastating mass murder at a Lunar New Year celebration in California the day before was an ever-present reminder that racism is a plague of its own, “The Great Khan” is one of those plays, unlike history, that recognizes its own complexity. Jamal Howard’s direction feels stiff at first but what unfurls from those somewhat awkward first moments is anything but. Flitting from scenes featuring Gao reciting facts from the life of Genghis Khan back to Jayden’s bedroom where a report is being crafted, this show is way more enjoyable than history class ever was.
A surprise visit from Temüjin, or the The Great Khan himself (an uninimitable Steffen Diem Garcia), teaches us an important lesson courtesy of Mongolian belief that applies to the notion of legacy. So long as we exist under the endless blue sky, dead or alive, we live on. We do not get to choose what is written about us or how we’ll be remembered. All we can do is recognize the complexity of life around us.
“The Great Khan” at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 West Bryn Mawr, redtwisttheatre.org, $25-$40. Through February 26.