Gil Scott-Heron’s Fade from Grandeur

Han Ong's play about the godfather of hip-hop evokes Miles Away, Don Cheadle's biopic about Miles Davis.

Carl Lumbly, Safiya Fredericks and Rafael Jordan in Grandeur at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Riley

A man sits in his darkened flat staring out at something that’s no longer there. The room is cluttered with books and papers and records. The lamps have shorted out. These physical signs of disarray also define the man’s psychology. When a voice calls his name, it comes from a sepulchral place offstage. Whoever’s lost in his dimly lit hall is about to confront someone who has also lost his way.

That man on the bedraggled couch is Gil Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly), a musician who disappeared inside his drug addiction. Grandeur is Han Ong’s depiction of an afternoon encounter between a reporter who seeks him out for a story after the release of I’m New Here, his final studio album. The dramatic setup is familiar. Most recently, it was the scenario of Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead. A reporter knocks on Miles Davis’ door during that musician’s fallow period of heroin addiction, his “hiatus” from the music business.   

What distinguishes Ong’s version is his focus on character and his use of language. Cheadle provides a moving backstory about the dissolution of Davis’ first marriage, only to abandon it. The initial interview, which sparks Davis’ memories, gives way to an action movie, car chase included. Grandeur stays put inside Scott-Heron’s living room. The play reanimates the spirit of a man in his death throes. The artist he once was has already passed away.

Carl Lumbly in Grandeur at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Riley

When Steve (Rafael Jordan), the young reporter who seeks him out, crosses the musician’s threshold, he’s stepping inside unfamiliar territory. Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks), a caretaker of sorts, greets him with a warning: “Don’t be death.” Ong threads the needle with that line. Even if Steve doesn’t know what to make of it, the playwright turns him into a symbol — one of death’s messengers — without depriving him of his human agency in the plot. What she means will become clear in time to everyone.

Lumbly, who was such an imposing physical presence on stage in Red Velvet at SF Playhouse last year, here appears to be wasting away. If you look at photographs of Scott-Heron late in his life, you can see a skeletal self in formation. As this character, the actor seldom has the means to even stand up on his feet. He’s agreed to the interview for the same reason Miles Davis did: he wants someone to score his next high. This is a performance based on someone’s inner life and Lumbly is quietly magnetic in the part.

If you don’t know anything about Gil Scott-Heron’s career — dubbed the Godfather of Hip-Hop — Grandeur won’t enlighten you much. Ong only provides tidbits of his biography. Instead of bearing down hard on exposition, the playwright obsesses over his deteriorating psychology. There are references to his father but paternal absence or neglect isn’t brought up to account for his condition. In fact, Ong isn’t rooting around for the occasion of Scott-Heron’s fall. As a writer, he seems to simply be practicing tolerance for a soul in pain. We’re meant to watch him suffer but without judgment.

It would be easy to object with Ong’s approach. Miss Julie and Steve are essentially supporting characters in a drug addict’s monologue. Why not focus on the musician’s better years, or at least allude to them? In a startling intermezzo between acts, Scott-Heron, oblivious to the world around him, slumps down on a subway train, drool staining his overcoat. The scene indicts the very notion of grandeur. There’s nothing left to revere. Ong makes a cautionary tale out of his subject. It’s Lumbly who humanizes him, who turns him into an ordinary man without any gifts left to squander.

Grandeur, through June 25, at Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, 415-441-8822 or magictheater.org.  

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