Witness Chicago Premiere of Blistering Drama ‘The Great Khan’ at Redtwist Theatre

Years ago, I was in the position to help a young theater company update and beautify part of their performance facility. That was long before The Life and Times of Rikki Lee Travolta existed. It was just something I did because I have always believed in supporting the arts.

It’s always so fulfilling when life comes full circle and you get to see that a small act of kindness has done good in the world.

The theater in question is Redtwist Theatre, located in Chicago’s vivacious Edgewater neighborhood. Over the years Redtwist Theatre has grown and flourished, having now won seven non-Equity Jeff Awards.


Redtwist Theatre has a mission to produce searing hot drama, whether that be in the form of known titles or risky new works. As a part of that directive, Redtwist Theatre is now presenting the Chicago premiere of the The Great Khan, a very powerful and well-scripted new work from playwright Michael Gene Sullivan.

The play is described as a multicultural piece about the effects of systemic racism on two Black American teens. However, it deals with far more than just one issue or theme. The play’s author masterfully tackles themes of gender identity, relocation, single parenting, individuality, victim guilt, and loss of innocence.

As we learn early in the play, a Black teenager named Jayden and his mother have moved to a new area. The move was because Jayden had saved a young woman, and had in the process become the target of the people who were attacking her.

Over the course of the next hour and forty-five minutes we learn about the crime Jayden stopped, the emptiness that can come from having an estranged parent you haven’t seen in years, and what its like to be the new Black kid in a school without any other Black students.


Jayden is played by Simon Gebremedhin, who turns in a strong performance. As Jayden, Gebremedhin covers a lot of emotional territory. Just some of the feelings he is tasked with presenting are fear, confusion, loneliness, anger, and compassion. There’s even a hint of romance.

Gebremedhin is at his best in the moments when his character is just being a kid, with impulsive thoughts and a certain level of innocence. But, the point of the play is also to show how hard it is to be ‘just a kid’ in today’s society. Sadly, we deal with things like bigotry and criminal threats all the time now.

Jayden lives with his mother Crystal, however he hasn’t seen his father in eight years. His father was a transplant from another country who had been in the U.S. legally, but was then deported on a technicality after Jayden was born.

Crystal is played by LaTorious. Sullivan has written some really great material for the character of Crystal. There are sections that are absolutely hysterical, and others that pull at the heartstrings. LaTorious shines brightest when Crystal is embarrassing her son. She has a real flair for Sullivan’s comic undertones. Crystal getting ready to twerk for the sole purpose of torturing her son, is delivered with pure genius.

There are also problems at school. Deeply troubled, Jayden doesn’t have much interest in applying himself at his new school. This prompts one of his teachers, Mr. Adams, to try to connect with him.


Bryan Breau is just wonderful as Mr. Smith. Breau isn’t scared to make decisive character choices. He does a truly outstand job of capturing the nervousness of a Caucasian teacher trying to connect to a Black student in a school with little or no background in such situations.

In his efforts to connect, Mr. Smith assigns Jayden to collaborate with non-binary student Gao Ming to do a report on Genghis Kahn. To be fair, Mr. Smith also agrees to Jayden’s request to come up with a list of 20 famous Black people in history who aren’t from the world of entertainment or sport – and is surprised to discover how hard that might be for most White people.

Jayden’s report partner Gao is played by Josie Mi with an amazing level of honesty. Sitting in the audience you will feel like you are watching a real person talk, not an actress reciting memorized lines. There is a spontaneity to every line Mi delivers. Josie Mi has all the skills for a long and successful acting career. Audiences can’t help but love her.

Audiences will also love the excitement Jayden has once he starts researching Genghis Khan. Although the leader was a fierce warrior, he was far more human than most history books paint him to be. He understood when it was necessary to be brutal and unforgiving, but also had a softer side.


Born with the name Temujin, Khan was actually a visionary leader – extending an open invitation to anyone who wanted to join his tribe and preaching equal rights, religious tolerance, free trade, and the open exchange of ideas.

Temujin was also a romantic. He married the girl he pledged his love to back when he was eight years old, and they ended up living a long and happy life together.

Anyone who has any background in education knows how magical it can be when a student who isn’t applying themselves gets excited about a homework assignment. That excitement in Sullivan’s prose is inspirationally brought to life by both Gebremedhin and Mi.

Rounding out the cast are Monique Marshaun and Steffen Diem Garcia. Marshaun plays a young teenage girl named Ant. The crime that Jayden stopped that prompted his move to this new neighborhood involved Ant.

As the story goes on, Marshaun pulls back the layers of her character to reveal a girl who is far less streetwise and tough than she lets on. There is a gradual melting of the rough edges.

Garcia plays a fantasized representation of Genghis Khan who visits Jayden to help him with his report. It is a great part that actors will be clamoring to play. Garcia has to be elated to be the first to bring this version of Temunjin to life in Chicago.


Jazmin Aurora Medina does an excellent job costuming the show on a budget. You don’t have to have million-dollar costumes to put on a great play.

Rose Johnson’s set is also incredibly well done. It perfectly represents the room of a teenage boy, with Henry Sebastian Bender’s props adding even more to the realism of the setting.  Lighting designer Piper Kirchhofer and sound designer Max Cichon also do a fine job adding to a great night of theater.

The Great Khan is an excellent script, and Redtwist Theatre’s Chicago premier is one to be seen and enjoyed. What is exciting for the future of The Great Khan as a script is that there are some already strong sections that could be even better with further revision.

In terms of this specific mounting, director Jamal Howard really shows off solid creative chops. I love the way he uses the intimate Redtwist space. From blocking to character development to overall presentation, I am very impressed with Jamal Howard and look forward to seeing more of his work.

One of my beliefs when it comes to theater is that if you can’t hide it, flaunt it. Howard also seems to embrace this philosophy as it relates to The Great Khan. Since there is no way to hide the scene changes from the audience, Howard has turned each one into a little mini scene. It is very effective and enjoyable.

The Great Khan is a part of the National New Play Network’s nationwide rolling premiere. This is the first time the play has been produced in Chicago and the director, playwright, actors, and support personnel should all be very proud.

One nice thing is that The Great Khan offers some great social commentary without beating you over the head. The script makes you think, and Redtwist Theatre has done a superb job giving it voice and body.

The Great Khan runs through February 26, playing Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 3:30 PM. The storefront theater is located at 1044 W. Bryn Mawr in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. There are plenty of great dining options in the area including Edgewater Mexican Café, which has a parking arrangement with Redtwist wherein patrons who dine there before or after a performance can utilize the restaurant’s parking lot.

For tickets call (773) 728-7529 or visit www.RedTwistTheatre.org.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicagoyour source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area


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