In “The Great Khan,” local playwright Michael Gene Sullivan’s new comedy about three teenagers (two Black, one Asian), their teacher, a mother and, yes, the Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan, the laughs come quickly — just as quickly as you’d expect from the head writer of the broad musical farces centered on political issues that are created and staged yearly by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
But make no mistake. This play — the first coproduction between San Francisco Playhouse and the Mime Troupe and part of the National New Play Network (it’s premiering almost simultaneously at various theaters nationwide) — is written in a different style entirely from the Mime Troupe’s; Sullivan terms it a “domestic dramedy.” It does, however, have two elements in common: It’s funny, and it deals with a serious social issue.
Sullivan grew up in San Francisco, the son of left-wing radicals, went to George Washington High School and wrote his first play in elementary school, about funding for schools. He also wrote horror stories, “so the kids wouldn’t beat me up.”
A self-professed history nerd who intended to teach history — he owns at least three biographies of Napoleon — Sullivan joined the Mime Troupe in 1988 and since then has been a busy actor, director and playwright.
When the pandemic hit, Sullivan had four productions of his adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” running, including a national tour and a translated production in Kiev, Ukraine. He has taught playwriting at American Conservatory Theater, was resident playwright at Playwrights Foundation and has performed at many local theaters.
Sullivan and his wife, actor Velina Brown, who’s also a member of the Mime Troupe collective, live in an apartment north of the Panhandle with their son, Zachary, 18. Both fulltime theater professionals, Sullivan and Brown say they would turn down roles, no matter how well-paid, if there’s a conflict with their political convictions.
As “The Great Khan” opens, a teenage girl, Ant, wearing a hoodie and brandishing a gun, jumps through the window into the bedroom of the teenage boy Jayden, who’s asleep. After that, nothing happens the way you might expect.
Below is an edited version of a phone chat with the voluble Sullivan during rehearsals for “The Great Khan” at S.F. Playhouse’s downtown stage, directed by Cal State East Bay theater professor Daryl V. Jones.
What was the original impetus for this play?
I wanted to write about the difficulty of growing up a Black American teen — in a country that sees you as an insane runaway slave at best and as an inevitable felon at worst.
And I wanted to write about Black girls being sexualized young just because they’re Black. I wanted to show that struggle.
And I read a book about Genghis Khan (Jack Weatherford’s “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”). It was so mind-blowing and interesting: the idea we have about Khan as opposed to who he was and how advanced the Mongol Empire was. Everything we learned about him was written by his enemies! But for years in Europe he was the amazing, kind, benevolent, generous king. Of course, kings were all bandits and murderers.
So this idea of how we’re portrayed to ourselves and to society in history, and these two teenagers growing up in the United States, and Genghis Khan — finally in 2019 [I thought] this is how I can write this story!
How did you decide upon the characters?
I wanted them to be as unstereotypical as possible. So (Jayden’s classmate) Gao-Ming — her parents are ex-heavy metal poets, super cool. That’s not the image people have of Chinese parents. Jayden’s mother (played by Velina Brown) is a single Black mother whose husband is not in prison or dead or on drugs — he’s been deported back to Africa! Even the schoolteacher is actually open to things and can admit he’s wrong. None fit into a box; no villains.
Is Jayden based on Zachary?
Zach is definitely a reference. But he’s not exactly my son. But probably I wouldn’t have written the show if we didn’t have Zachary.
Some of the dialogue is written in the Mongolian language! How?
I studied the syntax of the language, wrote the script in English and got a translating app, which wasn’t easy to find, then found a Mongolian scholar at USF, who went through it and approved it. Then Brian Rivera (who plays Khan) found a native Mongolian speaker to go through it. Whatever is getting translated (such as “1984” into Ukrainian), I always consult two people for two translations, to compare the differences.
I laughed at the very first line. You are perceived as a comic writer, a comic actor. But in your writing you always have important stuff to say. Did you start out being the class clown?
I grew up in a political family (in San Francisco). But my parents were also into comedy, comedy albums: Godfrey Cambridge, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor … My father took me to see the Mime Troupe when I was in high school (“Factwino,” 1981) and I thought, Oh my god, that’s exactly what I want to do! (Later), in my third show (acting) with the Mime Troupe, I ended up writing three scenes. When (longtime Troupe head writer) Joan Holden left, I graduated into resident playwright.
Once you’ve decided on an issue to explore, what else do you do?
I can get stuck for a month if I can’t figure out the characters’ names. I’ll go through Latin dictionaries, other languages, how old is the character, what were popular names when they were born? A name is so important.
The single thing I spend more time doing every day is reading the news from around the world, watching documentaries. I just watched one today about modern Mongolia.
When it comes to the whimsical, human stuff, I go for a walk. I might be gone for 12 hours walking around San Francisco. Once I walked to Marin from home, across the bridge, to the beach, the sun going down, through the Marina. Then I went to the movies. When I’m writing and go walking, if I want to do anything, I do it: Tommy’s Joynt for corned beef. The movies. When I was writing “Freedomland” (2015) for the Mime Troupe, about police violence against the Black population, I decided to walk uphill as far as I could go. There was a bus stop under Sutro Tower. I spread out the script on the sidewalk and made notes. I kept expecting someone to call the cops on me and I’d tell them I was writing a play about police brutality!
What do you want to write next?
I’ve been thinking about the tough one: climate change. But I haven’t figured out how to make that funny yet. Comedy is a delivery system for harsh truths, Velina always says.
Mostly my stories are about humans trying to fit into an inhuman machine. And the hypocrisy around that. There are different aspects of modern society: colonialism, sexism, imperialism, all that stuff that’s endemic, trying to figure out a way to write about that, showing audiences a different aspect of it, and how they’re complicit. And make it funny. Go fight against injustice, racism, sexism, police brutality! It’s a never-ending battle. But it’s fun!
IF YOU GO: The Great Khan
Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., second floor
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; closes Nov. 13
Tickets: $30-$100 in person; streaming: $15-$100
Contact: sfplayhouse.org/ the-great-khan