Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory

Oakland-reared playwright Marcus Gardley has impressed the Bay Area theater community with his well-received “And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” and “Head of Passes”.  Currently, Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project offers his first produced play “Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory”.  Appropriately, the play is being performed at Oakland City Church.

Vic’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Keith Wallace, Candace Thomas

The central character is Oscar Clifton, a live-alone, self-indulgent, 72 year old.  While laid-back, Oscar is a man of passions – a guitarist by trade, a skirt chaser by nature, and a chess player by pastime.  His life’s moments are recorded in a book of memories, which acts as a reference source for a time-layered reflection of significant periods of his adult family life.  Oscar is deftly played by Keith Wallace, who exudes the charm, irritability, and irresponsibility of the character.

Oscar’s current nemesis is his grandson, Marcus G., and it is hard to ignore the playwright’s choice of name for this character. William Thomas Hodgson plays Marcus through various ages and, like Wallace, without the benefit of makeup changes.  He, too, is very convincing in his portrayal, moving back and forth from the fourth grade through adulthood.  His spotty relationship with his grandfather swings from domineered to demanding, and Hodgson commands the emotional tenor of each age well.

The key events in Oscar’s life center around relationship conflicts with his long estranged wife Viola and daughter Darlene, adeptly played by Candace Thomas and Megan Wells, respectively.  Oscar is a recurring disappointment to the women in his life who want to rely on him and love him.

Rounding out a fine cast of principal actors is Halili Knox, listed in the program as “Woman of Wisdom”.  As an apparition reading stage directions and narrative transitions, she provides an authoritative presence.  The proceedings are punctuated with rhythmic original music and dance of both black American and Swahili origin, delivered by an always present lively choir that rings or fronts the stage.

Ubuntu is using site-specific locations for their current season, and the ambiance created by the church setting is suited to this work.  The scope for staging and lighting is somewhat restricted, but the bare bones setting is appropriate, and the choir, informally draped around the stage largely substitutes as a set.

Two versions of this play have been produced, the original (with a three hour running time) and a 40-minute shorter revision.  In consultation with the playwright, Ubuntu is performing the original.  Although most all vignettes are engaging, not all are essential to the dramatic arc.  In particular, a long episode concerning Marcus G. interacting with his fourth grade classmates is superfluous.  One can hypothesize that Gardley is loath to relinquish something that he had invested effort in or that retaining this episode is a way to give a meatier role to attract an equity actor.  And it is true that Hodgson stretches his acting chops with this scene, but it is a drag on the play’s momentum.  Although the singing and dancing add considerable color, they provide sense rather than meaning and could also be reduced by a third without loss.

All things considered, this is the kind of work that deserves an audience, and hopefully it will attract regular theater lovers as well as underserved communities.  Kudos to director Michael Socrates Moran for demonstrating that rewarding theater can come from very limited resources.

“Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory”

Through August 2

Oakland City Church
2735 MacArthur Blvd
Oakland, CA  94602

Victor Cordell
July 25, 2015