San Diego Rep’s world premiere ‘Great Khan’ aims to topple racial stereotypes

The cast of San Diego Repertory Theatre's "The Great Khan"
The cast of San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “The Great Khan.” Top row: Mikayla Bartholomew, left, Brian Rivera and Dylan Seaton. Bottom row: Molly Adea, left, Jerome Beck and Brittney Caldwell.
(Rich Soublet II)

Michael Gene Sullivan’s comedy is about two teens rising above what society expects of them, with help from Genghis Khan


Several years ago, San Francisco playwright Michael Gene Sullivan and his wife, singer-actor Velina Brown, sat down their teenage son to have “the talk” that all Black parents dread. And right about the same time, Brown’s wife bought him a copy of the 2004 book “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.”

The nonfiction history book is about how the 13th-century Mongol ruler was demonized in writing by English colonizers as a barbaric monster. But during his reign, Khan also developed a civilization with free trade, religious equality and advances in public health and education. Sullivan, who majored in history in college, said Khan’s biography was written as a tool of propaganda, just as some media outlets have stereotyped Black teenage boys as dangerous adult criminals to be feared.

Michael Gene Sullivan, author of "The Great Khan" at San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Michael Gene Sullivan, author of “The Great Khan” at San Diego Repertory Theatre.
(San Diego Repertory Theatre)

Those experiences planted the seeds for Sullivan’s “The Great Khan,” a comedy about two Black teens struggling against stereotypes that opened in previews Thursday, March 3at San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep is one of three U.S. theater companies co-producing the National New Play Network rolling world premiere of the play. Rep audiences first saw the play last year in the company’s Black Voices Reading Series.

It’s the story of Jayden, a nerdy Black teenage boy who prefers video games to anything else, and Ant, a Black female classmate aiming to shed the “tough Black girl” persona she adopted to protect herself. Meanwhile, Jayden is in the midst of writing a book report on Genghis Khan when Khan himself materializes to explain that reality is far more complex than history books and the media tell us.

“It’s about who tells your story and how you shouldn’t believe what other people say about you,” Sullivan said. “You’re accepting the definition of yourself that is written by people who hate you.”

Sullivan said Jayden represents the reality of young Black men like his own son, who is now 19, who are “growing up in a country that would prefer that you simply weren’t there or didn’t exist except for entertainment purposes.” And the Ant character addresses how American culture pre-sexualizes Black girls.

Sullivan, a resident playwright for the Playwrights Foundation and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, has written more than 20 plays, most of them on themes of social and economic justice, including his acclaimed stage adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

“The plays I write are about the importance of history and how overlooking history means you won’t move forward at all,” he said. “What we remember of history is what serves our purpose in the modern day.”

Sullivan said he hopes audiences will see the humanity in the characters in “The Great Khan,” all of whom defy common stereotypes. And while his plays often touch on violence and “brutal truths,” he promises they’re still very funny.

“I’m trying to tell stories in ways where people think they know what’s going to happen, but then it’s my job to keep them interested and tell them new things,” he said. “I’m showing people in awkward situations and finding out more about themselves, which is a way for the audience to find out more about themselves. My plays are always about the audience.”

‘The Great Khan’

When: Previews March 44 through March 8. Opens Wednesday, March 9 and runs through March 27. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego

Tickets: $25-$91

Phone: (619) 544-1000