L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry News Contacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Theatre in Review

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

Theatre in Review: Black Odyssey (Classic Stage Company)

Marcus Gladney, Jr., Harriett D. Foy. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Playwright Marcus Gardley is no stranger to ambition, having previously dramatized a fictional lawsuit over the killing of Malcom X in X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation and transferred Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba to antebellum New Orleans for The House That Will Not Stand. He gives himself his most daunting assignment yet in Black Odyssey, which invokes the entire sweep of Black American history to give the Homeric epic a contemporary twist.

Even by the standards of Gardley's previous works, Black Odyssey is a piece of extraordinary scope, a richly theatrical epic that makes no apologies for unfolding on several levels at once. The action takes place in the playwright's version of Olympus, contemporary New York, and in the mind of the leading character, quite possibly while he is unconscious. It juxtaposes poetry with trash talk, cosmic grandeur with wisecracks, and historic events with the day-to-day problems of a single mother and her rebellious son. Like any epic journey, it has its digressions, even its longueurs, and it can be a bit confusing from time to time. But it only becomes more gripping as it goes on, leading to a climactic reconciliation that is almost Shakespearean in its power.

Gardley re-envisions Ulysses as a product of foster care, unaware that he is a descendant of the gods. Joining the Army, he is shipped to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, leaving behind his pregnant wife Nella. Having killed an innocent Afghan boy in a moment of misadventure, Ulysses falls into a crippling depression and is lost at sea. Paw Sidin, god of the ocean, claiming the murdered boy was his son, wants revenge. But Ulysses' Aunt Tina, goddess of war, wants to protect her nephew and is willing to assume human form if that is what it takes. Deus, god of gods, intervenes in their argument, and Tina descends to earth, moving in with Nella and her son, Malachai. Her aim is to restore Ulysses with his loved ones, even as Paw Sidin moves to destroy the tortured hero.

Ulysses finds his way back to Harlem but, guilt-ridden, he cannot bring himself to face his family; diagnosed with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain -- a dubious gift from Paw Sidin -- he must submit to surgery. The action that follows takes place on Gardley's triple-tier structure. One on level, the gods play chess with the human characters' destinies, meddling in their lives when necessary. On another, Nella and Tina struggle to raise the angry, questioning Malachai to be a mature, socially aware adult. Meanwhile, Ulysses, under anesthesia, enters a journey into his race's memory, searching for the "greatest ancestor" who can provide him with absolution. His travels feature signposts that include, among others, Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, the Scottsboro Boys, and the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. Along the way, he must contend with gods in disguise, spirits of the dead, and a trio of sirens decked out like Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and James Brown.

Indeed, so much is happening that it takes time to sort it all out, which may account for the somewhat slow, stately nature of Stevie Walker-Webb's staging of the first half. In particular, the scenes between James T. Alfred as Deus and Jimonn Cole as Paw Sidin could use a little more crackle. But Gardley's vision is capacious, his language is gorgeous, and, as all the plot lines come together, the resolution can bring you to the edge of tears. Among the members of the gifted ensemble, Sean Boyce Johnson is a compellingly conscience-wracked figure as Ulysses; D. Woods is a tower of maternal strength, armed with plenty of tough love, as Nella; Temídayo Amay is captivating as the enigmatic Benevolence, whose true identity is not made clear until the eleventh hour; and new face Marcus Gladney, Jr. is a strikingly natural presence as Malachai, who learns at an early age how to get into good trouble. The standout is Harriett D. Foy, whose Aunt Tina is both a powerful sibyl and everybody's kooky, unfiltered elderly relative.

Such a complex enterprise benefits from a clean, clear production design. David Goldstein's set features an acrylic glass thrust stage that, under Adam Honoré's lighting, creates some eerie, otherworldly reflections. (One reservation: A couple of Honoré's saturated color choices are unflattering and obscure the actors' faces; still, he creates an extensive vocabulary of evocative looks.) Kindall Houston Almond's costumes range from Olympian robes to mack-daddy chic for Super Fly Tireseas, the shagadelic prophet with a knack for inaccurate predictions. The lively sound design by UptownWorks includes a preshow playlist of "Get Up Offa That Thing" by James Brown and "Rhythm Nation" by Janet Jackson, plus hip-hop selections, ambient effects, and bits of the old Norman Lear sitcom Good Times. The dynamic live percussion of Ayinde Webb adds its own brand of theatrical excitement.

In a theatre scene that can sometimes be risk-averse, Gardley's consistent originality and breadth of vision marks him as one of our most interesting playwrights. It's worth nothing that, at the performance I attended, he had the audience's full emotional engagement. It's proof positive that theatregoers don't need to be spoon-fed, that a work that teems with both classical and popular references can be so readily enjoyed. Black Odyssey is an epic journey that pays commensurate with its challenges. --David Barbour

(17 March 2023)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook