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.
Continue reading “Song of I, Song of Us: Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey at California Shakespeare Theater”
By Jerome Joseph Gentes