It’s three-for-three — all Cal Shakes’ plays have been winners so far this summer under the new artistic direction of Eric Ting. And the brilliant Black Odyssey is the best of the season to date. An ingenious production in poetry and prose, filled with humor, history, myth, music, magic and dance by Oakland native playwright Marcus Gardley, Black Odyssey, is a modern re-telling of Homer’s epic story of Odysseus’ protracted journey home after the fall of Troy from the perspective of the black experience.
In Gardley’s creative version, the Odysseus character (known as Ulysses in Roman myths) is an Oakland resident and Gulf War veteran Ulysses Lincoln, who, after being lost at sea and presumed dead, spends 16 years searching for the way home to his faithful wife Nella (Penelope) and his son Malachi (Telemachus). As in the Odyssey, the gods manipulate Ulysses’ journey with a magisterial Great Grand Daddy Deus (Zeus) battling a vengeful and devious Great Grand Paw Sidin (Poseidon) for Ulysses’ soul in a chess game, while Great Aunt Tina (Athena) loses her immortality when she descends from her home in the Oakland Hills to help Nella and Malachi down in the flats.
Ulysses’ difficult passage back to his home in Oakland grows out of his arduous army experiences in Afghanistan, especially his killing of a one-eyed Afghani citizen whom he feared. Before Ulysses is ready to come home to his family, he must find himself by coming to terms with his actions and confronting his history as an African American.
In a recent interview, Gardley said, “I think that the journey into our past is vital for understanding who we are. It’s not just about learning one’s genealogy, although that is important. It is also necessary to learn about one’s cultural past.”
The African-American experience, starting from the slave ships, through the civil war, Jim Crow and the civil-rights movement, to Trayvon Martin and the modern indignities of simply being a modern black man, are passionately explored and explained during Ulysses’ journey, as well as through son Malachi’s troubles with the police and at Bishop O’Dowd School. In a touching scene, Ulysses is reunited with his mother, whose interest in stories emphasizes the significance of oral history and traditional stories in the African-American community.
The vitality of music to the black experience is portrayed with great drum playing and wonderful gospel and soul music. In a very funny bit, Deus, dressed as Superfly Tiresias in a finned wonder of a Cadillac, swoops down to save Ulysses from the sirens who are trying to seduce him in the forms of singers Diana Ross and Tina Turner.
Eric Ting’s direction is as masterful as was his recent direction of Berkeley Rep’s Octoroon. Black Odyssey’s cast is absolutely superb, especially the leads, J. Alphonse Nicholson as Ulysses, Margo Hall as Tina, Omozé Idehenre as Nella, Aldo Billingslea as Paw Sidin and Lamont Thompson as Deus. The stagecraft is excellent, to the point that I mistook T. Carlis Robert’s added thunder and Xavier Pierce’s artificial lightning for the real things.
Marcus Gardley (Berkeley Rep’s The House That Will Not Stand) is a major talent, who hopes to follow in the tradition of one of his idols, August Wilson. A nationally known, award-winning poet/playwright who taught theater at Brown University, Gardley attended Castlemont High School before graduating from San Francisco State University and the Yale School of Drama.
Black Odyssey is funny, yet poignant, imaginative yet rooted in history. I urge you not to miss this fabulous play.
Black Odyssey is playing at the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda through Sept. 3. Complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART begins two hours before curtain. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Cal Shakes.