Song of I, Song of Us: Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey at California Shakespeare Theater

By Jerome Joseph Gentes

August 13, 2017
In my blood Lakota Sioux culture, we call chants of praise honor songs. This is an honor song for Marcus Gardley, and the CalShakes production of his new play black odyssey that opened last night. I want to state right out that I’m writing this on Sunday, August 13, the day after the murders and radical domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. I’m writing this under the cloud of the last few years of racial violence. I’m writing this under the shadow that the current Executive Branch of the Federal Government is casting over the land. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.

A soldier’s homecoming after war is never a simple story, never simply going from point A to B. Any traveler under any circumstance who gets lost and veers off course does not unravel a simple story. Combining those two tropes, and stirring in hefty doses of subplot by way of interference from gods, human nature, and nature itself, Homer (like others) added to a small but vital shelf of epic narratives for all times and all peoples. Small wonder that The Odyssey has inspired novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses and plays like Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks. It has also inspired Oakland’s Marcus Gardley, and with black odyssey he has achieved something extraordinary: a personal and public take on Homer’s poem that not only stands alongside the original–it reflects and expands the epic and the other great works it has inspired.

Directed by Artistic Director Eric Ting, the exceptional cast of nine includes J. Alphonse Nicholson as the hero, Ulysses Lincoln, Omozé Idehenre as his faith-tested wife, Nella Jerome Pell, and Michael Curry as grown Malachai, the son born during his absence. I’m naming these characters and actors first because Gardley, Ting, and company have foregrounded the human story of a husband who has wed a woman, but hasn’t had the chance to perform his husbandly role and responsibilities. A man who has fathered a child but hasn’t had a chance to occupy and perform the role of parent. Likewise, Nella is Ulysses’s wife, but has had to live–and love–for 16 years without him, while Malachai has grown up like too many boys do–mothered, but unfathered. Gardley’s script plumbs the breadths and depths of this broken dynamic in ways that make it fresh and vital, and Ting wisely puts all three actors front and center. Nicholson actually spends much of his time at the very edge of the stage, making music on upturned five-gallon buckets as point and counterpoint to the action. Gardley preserves the Homeric framing device of deities at play with mortal lives in a chess match with dire consequences for humanity between Great Grand Daddy Deus, played by the orotund Lamont Thompson and Great Grand Paw Sidin, the oracular Aldo Billingslea.

The rage and grief and despair that play out for Nella and Malachai alone are the height of drama. Fortunately for them, the play, and for the audience, the Athena character, Tina, who Gardley makes a distant great aunt, moves in to help Nella raise Malachai. As played by the wonderful Margo Hall, Tina transitions from Olympian divinity in her gorgeous Ashanti gown to house-bound helper in caftan and leopard leggings and back again.

A third family, the Sabines, plays a key part in Gardley’s (re-)imagining: Alsendra, Artez, and Benevolence Sabine, played respectively by Dawn L. Troupe, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Safiya Fredericks. Ulysses encounters them early on his attempted journey home, where they’re on a New Orleans rooftop to escape the rising tides. Tides of Hurricane Katrina, tides of racism, tides of history, and tides of memory. Benevolence joins Ulysses for much of his journey home, and the Odyssey episodes weave in and out of their own adventures as well as the hero’s storytelling. Two such episodes were particularly spectacular: the Sirens episode, which gives Thompson a chance to play a pimped-out Granddaddy Tiresias, Troupe to play Diana Ross, Hall to do Tina Turner, and Sullivan to tear up the trunktop of a gold Caddy convertible as James Brown. Even better (and “better” is a relative word amidst such strong ensemble performances) is Troupe’s performance as Calypso, who tempts Ulysses with a monologue about food that had the audience salivating as she caresses every sound and syllable.

Gardley’s script is as lyric as anything I’ve ever heard or read, and I have read and heard a lot of song and poetry. (I cannot wait to re-read it in print, so if you’re a publisher, hurry and snap up the rights–no, the privileges–to publish this play.) There’s rhyme and rhythm, music and musings, imagery and idea to spare that not only honor the original; they take the original and this, its variation, further into the realm of timelessness. And the production honors every word. The simple yet stunning set design by Michael Locher consists of a grid of white-gold square pillars of varying heights. Xavier Pierce’s illuminations, darknesses, and shadows and Carlis Roberts’s sounds and silences transform them from the realm of the gods to project hallways and from BART and police stations. And because Ulysses Lincoln mentions that he enlisted in the military post-9/11, I thought more than once of the ruins of the World Trade Center. At the climax of the play–a deeply moving encounter between Ulysses and one of his female ancestors that reminded me of a moment in the great Toni Morrison’s Beloved–one of the pillars pivots around to spectacular effect.

Gardley’s play sings a song of society and selfhood, but more importantly, it gathers up humanity, history, memory, and storytelling into one magnificent performance poem. I haven’t seen Parks’s version of the Homeric myth, so I can’t compare them, and I don’t think I’d have to. black odyssey is a collective and collected chorus that rings true and necessary for our moment, and for moments to come. We too have a long journey to make, a long homecoming path to trod to get to the America we seem to be on the verge of losing. black odyssey is an imaginative roadmap for the heroism we’ll need.

Directed by Eric Ting
Closes Sept. 3rd
Ticket and Program Information
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *