Wandering All Over: ‘black odyssey’ at Cal Shakes

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“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”
– WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

I didn’t mean to put off this review for as long as I have. I went to see it opening night and planned post this review the next day or two. But I’m starting to wonder if my hesitation is talking about opening night had anything to do with the day I saw the show? I mean, it was one thing that it was just a few days that a racist/sexist screed from within one of the world’s largest companies had been made public, but the day of the performance saw a White supremacy rally turn deadly. (During the pre-show speech, director Eric Ting couldn’t help but acknowledge “the craziness” of today as he thanked the audience for attending.)

Remember when we lived under the delusion that we were past all that; that “the struggle” was over; that we no longer had to worry about the bigotry and violence that plagued our parents and grandparents? Well, if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that we’re not past those time we’ve read about – we’re living them all over again. Most of us are too young to remember Women’s Rights rallies, the horrors of the Holocaust, or the turmoil Black people had to endure through the Civil Rights Movement. But make no mistake, we are living through similar times now. Between Black men, women, and children being shot on the streets by cops to a racist “president” who goes easy on White supremacists and defends “beautiful” Confederate statues, there’s a good reason that anyone who is a straight White male has reason to fear.

Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey is about revisiting the past, both figuratively and literally. With shades of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, he uses Homer’s classic Greek myth to craft a tale about one man’s journey to return to the only home he’s ever known. Along the way, he travels through various eras of Black American history, gaining not only a greater understanding of that history, but of himself. The final result isn’t perfect, but it’s often incredibly interesting.

Ulysses just wants to get home. Knowing his wife Nella was expecting their first child, Ulysses joins the Army, in the hopes of being someone his child can admire. But when the 9/11 attacks result in his being deployed to Afghanistan, Ulysses is afraid he may not make it home at all. Further complicating matters is the fact that Ulysses is an unknowing pawn in the chess game played the gods Grand Paw Sidin and Grand Daddy Deus. When Ulysses kills Paw Sidin’s son, the god decides to play dirty. Not even the assistance of Ulysses’ goddess Aunt Tina may be enough to save him.

As Nella raises their son, Malachi, on her own, Ulysses’ journey finds him zigging and zagging through various stages and locations of Black history: from the Civil Rights movement to New Orleans to the Buffalo Soldier west to the Blaxploitation era. And yet, all he wants to do is return home to the son he’s never met.

FULL DISCLOSURE: nine years ago I made my professional theatre debut by taking part in a staged reading for the ACT. The script we read was Marcus Gardley’s The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry. The playwright was there with us through the entire process and even rewrote sections as we went along. Two of my fellow readers included Aldo Billingslea – whose character I played the younger version of – and Michael Gene Sullivan, both of whom star in this show. (It also included Daveed Diggs, who went to originate a role in some presidential musical or whatever.)

I went into black odyssey with high expectations. Perhaps too high. It isn’t that the show is bad – far from it – it’s just yet another show that tries to be so many things at once that it occasionally loses focus.

The show is very much a hybrid, a gumbo with ingredients culled from a myriad of disparate sources. From the Greek myth that forms its backbone to the stories told around traditional African drum circles, from Motown to funk, from spoken-word poetry to the overwrought gospel plays all Black people wind up attending at one time or another – all of these and more influenced Gardley’s script. Most of the time they glide together like a soft slow dance, but other times they crash into one another.

The best moments of dialogue come when Gardley’s characters try to verbally one-up each other. He knows “the dozens” are a crucial part of the Black American experience, so watching Deus and Paw Sidin shit-talk one another over the chess board is something one can recall from many card table and domino games from one’s youth. Similarly, when a defiant young Malachi disobeys his mother and declares himself a man, her method of putting him in check may just be the comedic height of the entire show.

Where the play falls short is when Gardley’s characters cease to be characters and become mouthpieces. The most egregious example comes at the top of Act II, when Ulysses gives a monologue that goes from spoken-word poem to a rather clumsy BLM speech. Yes, it’s ridiculous that those three words prove so controversial, and the world – nay, White people – should be forced to deal with them head-on. But Gardley’s strengths as a writer are better when he lets his characters actually be characters – that’s when he’s using the medium of theatre to get his ideas across through emotional resonance, whereas stating things explicitly just becomes a screed. The script, which is too long, desperately needed to be edited, both for running time and reel in Gardley’s tangents which weigh down his otherwise powerful script. As much as I can overlook the little things – like Deus (Zeus), Paw Sidin (Poseidon), and Aunt Tina (Athena) being gods, but inexplicably worshipping the Judeo-Christian God – but not the rambling.

Perhaps that wasn’t director Eric Ting’s job. As they play had already premiered in New York, the new AD of Cal Shakes seems to have just wanted to do the script justice rather than give it some needed clarity. To Ting’s credit, his contribution is a great one. He’s assembled a top-notch cast and crew to bring the show to stunning life.

Due to my aforementioned work with Billingslea and Sullivan, I’ll limit my praise of their performances (and it is praise), but there’s no shortage of talent on display. I will say that J. Alphonse Nicholson didn’t seem entirely comfortable as Ulysses, as if acting wasn’t an artform he’d focused on until recently. Still, he brings heart to the lead character. As does Omozé Idehenre as Nella. Her character comes dangerously close to becoming the “Aw, lawdy!” Black mother from the aforementioned gospel plays, but Idenhenre is a smarter actor than that, making Nella’s emotional turmoil real with being over-the-top.

The last time I saw Safiya Fredericks, she was a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre show. This time, her nuanced performances are a wonderful addition to a show that actually deserves her talents. I can’t recall having ever seen Michael Curry, Dawn Troupe, or Lamont Thompson before, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off them during this show.

But the real star of the show is Margo Hall as Aunt Tina. As well as the ensemble works together, Hall commands each and every single moment she’s onstage. She finds the perfect balance between making Aunt Tina regal, but still relatable. And when she takes human form to watch over Nella and Malachi in-person, she does so with an attitude and self-confidence that transcends the swivel-necked “sassy Black woman” stereotype countless sitcoms have drilled into our heads. (Although, I’d actually watch her in a sitcom about a goddess-aunt with her put-upon niece-in-law and uppity nephew.)

And the tech side of the show is equally on-point. Upon first entering the Bruns, I didn’t quite know what to make of Michael Locher’s stone pillar set-up, but I came to realize that it was a nod to classic Greek theatre, done in way both preceded it and made it timeless. Xavier Pierce’s lights and T. Carlis Roberts’ soundscapes excellent transcend the time and space of the characters and setting we see before us, adding well to the illusion of Ulysses moving everywhere from Afghanistan to Oakland in the blink of an eye.

The costume work of designer Dede M. Ayite is nothing less than a feast for the eyes. Taking visual cues from kente cloths, Mardi Gras parades, and even Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, each costume tells a story unto itself. There aren’t many shows in which you’d expect to see the sharply-dressed king of the gods dressed as a blind ‘70s soul brotha, but you’ll be glad you did.

And I can’t finish this review without acknowledging the work of vocal director Molly Holm, music director Linda Tillery, and choreographers Latanya D. Tigner & Kendra Barnes. In the tradition of both Black theatre and storytelling, music plays a crucial part. The play opens with Ulysses playing improvised drums made from turned-over buckets. It then includes traditional spirituals and interpolations of classics from Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and James Brown. And yes, the audience is often asked to participate. If you’re going to take this particular approach it’s something you cannot do wrong. With the help of Holm, Tiller, Tigner, and Barnes, director Ting and his crew to an excellent job.

The message of black odyssey is that Black people are still talking about the same topics after all these ages because, just as they did then, people refuse to listen to us. It’s a testament the power of the Black voice and a tribute to the evolution of Black art, which gets little respect as it continues to be the world’s driving cultural force.

Marcus Gardley’s script does its best when it remembers its characters are supposed to be people, not talking points. Fortunately, Cal Shakes’ interpretation of his script never forgets that point for one moment. We’re all the better for it.

GRADE:                B

black odyssey is scheduled to run until the 3rd of September at the Bruns Ampitheater in Orinda.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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