Black Odyssey: Drama adapted by Marcus Gardley from Homer’s The Odyssey. Directed by Eric Ting. CalShakes, Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. (510) 548-9666 or www.calshakes.org. Through September 3, 2017
Black Odyssey brilliantly melds African-American heritage with Homer’s Epic. Rating:
Saturday night high in the East Bay hills at Bruns Amphitheater a modern version of ancient Gods come down to earth to return Ulysses to his home in Oakland in a brilliant production of Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey. Having knowledge of Homer’s epic will enhance your evening but it not a necessity. Author Marcus Gardley mixes black folklore, modern events/injustice with Greek Mythology that will rip at our heart with moments of hilarity backed up by music for an unforgettable evening.
The Ulysses of this play is an American soldier Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) born in the projects of Oakland lost at sea on his return from a tour in Afghanistan and thought to be dead. He cannot remember his past or his Black heritage. He starts his endless quest to return “home” both physically and spiritually sitting on the stage apron playing a soulful riff on metal buckets often used by begging Street People. He is accompanied by an African chant and “Deep River” when Great Grand Daddy Deus (Lamont Thompson) insists “Let’s begin at the beginning so that we can get to the end.”
He is playing a chess game with another God, Great Grand Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea) to determine Ulysses’ fate. Director Eric Ting brilliantly stages the events of reality with the mythology reference taking full advantage of Gardley’s inventive words laced with poetic dialog. The non-linear story shifts from the Gods to earthlings. It is an inauspicious start that belies the action that is to follow.
He has joined the Army in peacetime to take advantage of the G-I Bill of rights thus getting an education. The Gods intervene and he is shipped off to the fight in the Middle-Eastern war leaving his wife Nella (Omoze Idehenre) and son Malachi (Michael Curry) in the unforgiving projects. By doing his duty as soldier the killing weighs heavily on his conscience and in the retelling of his story mythology mingles with the reality of his mind as he struggles home.
One of those whom Ulysses has killed is a son of Paw Sidin who wants revenge putting every obstacle in Ulysses path. Athena now named Aunt Tina (Margo Hall) the do-gooder daughter of Deus comes to Earth to assist Nella with the rearing of Malachi. Everyone knows that “teenagers are hateful people” but he does not deserve the injustice heaped on him by white policeman.
Intermingled with floods, famine and whirlpools are intimate scenes displaying the good nature of humanity by those who aid Ulysses. Throughout the performance there are eclectic musical interludes including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that ends act one with the cast parading off the stage in a street protest waving signs such as “Black Lives Matter.”
Memorable scenes abound including an opening second act with a Cadillac Convertible wheeled on to the stage with the Sirens bringing the house down with jive music. The music by Linda Tillery and Molly Holm add depth to Gardley’s retelling of Homer’s epic with emphasis on Black heritage, the need to know your past to move forward and home is where the heart is.
The actors are brilliant individually and as an ensemble playing multiple roles with a variety of personalities. They are greatly aided by the directing and physical staging to enhance this morality infused production that is must see theatre. Running time is two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
CAST: Great Grand Paw Sidin—Aldo Billingslea; Malachai—Michael Curry; Benevolence Nausicca Sabine—Safiya Fredericks; Great Aunt Tina—Margo Hall; Nella Pell—Omozé Idehenre; Ulysses Lincoln—J. Alphonse Nicholson; Artez Sabine—Michael Gene Sullivan; Great Grand Daddy Deus—Lamont Thompson; Alsendra Sabine—Dawn L. Troup.
CREATIVE STAFF: Director—Eric Ting; Scenic Designer—Michael Locher; Costume Designer—Dede M. Ayite; Lighting Designer—Xavier Pierce; Sound Design—T. Carlis Roberts; Vocal Composer & Music Director—Linda Tillery; Vocal Composer & Vocal Ensemble Director—Molly Holm; Choreographer—Latanya D. Tigner; Choreographer—Kendra Kimbrough Barnes; Dramaturg—Lisa Evans; Stage Manager—Laxmi Kumaran; Assistant Stage Manager—Megan Mcclintock.
Kedar K. Adour, MD
Courtesy of www.theatreworldim2.com.
(l to r) Aldo Billingslea (Great Grand Paw Sidin), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses Lincoln), Safiya Fredericks (Benevolence Nausicca Sabine), Dawn S. Troupe (Alsendra Sabine) and Lamont Thompson (Great Grand Daddy Deus) in Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater; photo by Kevin Berne