A Classic Reborn: a Review of BLACK ODYSSEY at CalShakes
August 14, 2017 § Leave a Comment
At the center of poet/playwright Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey (now playing at the California Shakespeare Theater) is the eternal impulse to retell a classic tale in order to claim it as one’s own. For those of us who regularly teach the classics, this is the lesson we seek to foster: the purpose of retelling these stories is not to perpetuate the past, but to connect to it. It is impossible to leave Eric Ting’s masterful production without feeling a part of something bigger than one’s own limited space and time.
Gardley’s reworking of the Homeric epic gains its force from the paradoxical rule that universality is achieved not by vacuous generality, but in precise specificity. On its surface, his play is about an African-American veteran of the contemporary (and ongoing) war in Afghanistan, named Ulysses Lincoln, who cannot find his way home. Over the course of the evening it becomes clear, however, that he is not so much geographically lost as spiritually at sea. His journey is not just finding his home, but finding himself.
After being swept overboard of the ship carrying him home by a wave caused by the vengeful sea god, he washes up on a shore that – we slowly realize – is located both far from his intended destination and decades before he was born. The path to self-knowledge runs through the discovery of a history that was in some ways actively withheld from him through erasure and distortion, and in other ways that he actively fled when he joined the army to get himself out of Oakland. Although this is one man’s specific story, Gardley guides us to seeing beyond the surface, making it also a story about all of us.
Like any true epic, the plot is anything but linear. It is dotted with witty reïmaginings of the arbitrary and capricious Greek gods Paw Sidin (Poseidon), Aunt Tina (Athena) and Great Grand Daddy Deus (whose name is pointedly changed from Zeus to the Latin generic term for “god,” presumably because it also applies to the god of Christian tradition) who toy with human fate for reasons of their own. It retains the secondary story of the struggles of his wife, Penelope (here called Nella P.), and son, Telemachus (Malachai in Gardley’s version), to survive and retain hope, while placing them in a very recognizable 21st century Oakland. Often it focuses on the surreal experiences of the wandering Ulysses.
Along the way Gardley invokes Hurricane Katrina, the string of assassinations of civil rights leaders, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Treyvon Martin, the death of Oscar Grant in the Fruitvale BART Station, reconstruction, and a host of other historical and local references that stir times and places together poetically. Painfully, I saw the opening night performance just hours after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in fatal violence against counter-protesters, which did not need to be directly referenced in order to be part of the mix.
A Great Feast of Language
Gardley is as much poet as playwright. His rhythms, rhymes and wordplay are both stunningly current and historically apt. For anyone who loves language black odyssey is a feast. CalShakes consistently demonstrates careful attention, not only to what is said, but how it is said. Gardley is at his most Homeric in his extravagant use of poetic artifice, and the producing company serves his inventive wit well.
The production heavily features music, especially arrangements of traditional spirituals. Vocal composers Linda Tillery and Molly Holm produced the strongest musical ensemble I have seen at CalShakes. (Tillery is also the credited Music Director, while Holm is also listed as Vocal Ensemble Director.) While I was less impressed with the brief forays into pop music in the second act, it is hard to underestimate how much of the overall impact of the production is built on the musical components. When the full cast is united in a choral moment, which happens rather often, the wall of sound they create is viscerally moving.
However much all of that matters, the evening is also about basking in the masterful performances of an exceptional cast. As Ulysses, actor/percussionist J. Alphonse Nicholson accomplishes the enormously challenging task of portraying a lost soul without fading from focus or losing his energy. His humanity and generosity as a performer letting us glimpse his innermost self allows us to identify with him intensely. Omozé Idehenre proves an emotional anchor for the entire evening as his long-suffering wife. Newcomer Michael Curry completes the family trinity as his son, Malachai, movingly and believably, even when the role shines an unsympathetic light on his character. In a conventional drama, this family grouping would be our entire focus and we would be content with such central performances.
In this cast, however, the peripheral players are every bit as compelling. CalShakes regulars Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall are powerhouses as the squabbling gods whose conflict lies behind Ulysses’ trials. Both also demonstrate astonishing versatility as they transform into their respective gods’ alter-egos. Billingslea invokes Paw Sidin as a coverall-clad levee fisherman but when he incarnates as a smooth-talking suit salesman wooing Nella P., a crisp military officer offering the wrong kind of solace when he brings news that Ulysses is lost and presumed dead, and a terrifying policeman, he appears completely different in each case. When Hall’s Athena sloughs off her immortality to become Aunt Tina, an aging and ill human, we see her change right before our eyes. And her invocation of Tina Turner (as one of the Sirens) is, well, let’s just say worth the price of admission all by itself.
Are these five great performers the magic number? Hardly. They are actually just the start of a cast of astonishing depth. Lamont Thompson as Daddy Deus is majestic, and in various minor roles he ranges from mysterious to hilarious. Bay Area playwright/performer Michael Gene Sullivan (best known for his work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe) appears – and sometimes disappears into – so many guises it’s hard to stay clear that it is the work of just one man and not a cast of dozens filling in. Dawn L. Troupe is Sullivan’s female equivalent in the cast playing a range of roles, sometimes prominent and sometimes almost invisible, providing enormous texture and depth to the play.
The nine-person cast is rounded out by Safiya Fredericks, whose light and amusing performance of Ulysses’ childish traveling companion conceals an artfulness and control that is only revealed when the entire play has unfolded. It is unfair that her masterful work cannot be discussed in detail without spoiling the play, but it can be said without harm that her genius lies in knowing when and how to unleash her talent, and it is worth the wait.
One Small Man in a Huge World
The action of the play happens almost exclusively on an empty platform in front of Michael Locher’s monumental set, but the dynamic visual impression created by the towering (and crumbling) pillars sets the right tone throughout the night. Locher is especially successful at tying the stage space to CalShakes’ astounding natural setting in the Berkeley hills. That gorgeous view is always one of the pleasures of attending a CalShakes production. In a piece this grounded locally, it was especially admirable that the surrounding environment was featured. Abetted by the outstanding work of Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce, both the onstage action and the larger surroundings remain in balance. Thematically evocative, the image of one small man making his way in the huge world could not have been more beautifully rendered. Costumes by Dede M. Ayite successfully mix the mundane (for scenes of domestic depression) and the fantastic (in the otherworldly visions of Ulysses), which is not an easy trick to pull off.
Ting’s directing is an astonishing act of empathy by a man who is, after all, of Asian-American decent, who is empowering an African-American cast to claim and interpret a story whose specifics are outside his direct experience. In his company debut as a director a year ago his Brechtian production of Othello proved controversial in part because (as is the way with such productions) we were not so much asked to empathize with Shakespeare’s hero, but told to do so. I am among those who actually like a stern lecture now and then and I liked Ting’s production, but I concede it was more Brecht than Shakespeare.
In this case, Ting seems an absolute servant to Gardley’s vision. It is hard for me to imagine that even those who found his Othello difficult will not find this an inviting experience. It is a sensitive and insightful rendition of a beautiful play, allowing a local playwright and cast to stake a claim on a work considered foundational to the Western tradition in a truly universal way. By making Homer their own they remind us that no one owns or directly inherits the past. We all have to find our humanity.
Production seen on August 12 2017
WHEN: through September 3, 2017
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday Matinees at 4pm
WHERE: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA 94563