California Shakespeare Theater’s ‘black odyssey’ looks toward past, toward us

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The “odyssey” in Marcus Gardley’s new play “black odyssey” has its cyclops, its Cersei and its Calypso. We meet the usual Sirens, cooing and calling, with appearances from Zeus, Poseidon and Athena. Yet, much of the Greek mythos has been replaced with an African American one. Don’t look toward Ancient Greece for mythic monsters and creatures of lore, Gardley seems to be saying — simply gaze toward Ferguson or Charlottesville, where scarier, and much more dangerous, monsters dwell.

Directed by Berkeley theater veteran Eric Ting, California Shakespeare Theater’s “black odyssey” runs three parallel story threads at once. The first is a chess game between “Great Grand Daddy Deus” (Lamont Thompson) and “Great Grand Paw Sidin” (Aldo Billingslea), the second is the homeward journey of Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) after being presumed dead in the Gulf War and the third thread tracks the life of Ulysses’ “widow,” Nella (Omozé Idehenre) and her growingly distant relationship to her and Ulysses’ son Malachi (Michael Curry). Each of these timelines bounce and collide, with the gods entering the human realm and the humans entering the afterlife.

It is Idehenre’s performance as Nella that seems to ground “black odyssey” in its own grim reality. Unlike other adaptations of the “The Odyssey,” Gardley smartly positions Nella’s struggle to survive in the Oakland projects on equal grounding to Ulysses’ journey through his family’s history. Nella is on her own unlikely odyssey, and Omozé Idehenre’s capacity to let the audience reach inside her and experience both her sorrow and resilience provides both the soul of “black odyssey” and a standout performance for Idehenre.

Meanwhile, Ulysses’ odyssey is much less straightforward. Often accompanied by the steady beat of drums, we jump from Hurricane Katrina to Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to the rockin’ ‘70s to 2017 Downtown Oakland. Similar to Ulysses, we’re never quite sure where we’re going or where we’ll end up, and the jumps from time to time are often followed by jarring, and oftentimes confusing, shifts in tone. At one moment we might be mourning the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, and in the next we might be singing along with Tina Turner.

Needless to say, the show tries to accomplish a lot — perhaps too much. Much of the first act finds Ulysses in a type of purgatory that is both a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and, well, something else. As the waters rise, the audience soon realizes that the other rooftops are populated with a “smiling Emmett,” hanging jovially from a tree, and the four Black schoolgirls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

We are haunted and disturbed, but these images are quickly undercut with the fast-paced nature of the play. It has a lot to realize and not a lot of time to dwell, so we are soon whooshed to another myth, to another time, and we are never allowed the proper moment of quiet to reflect on what we’re seeing.

As “black odyssey” nears its finish, however, the pace slows as the play abandons “real history” for “personal history.” The scenes are longer, quieter and more resonant, as Ulysses converses with characters who are just as real as before, only now symbolically so. We meet an ex-slave who still hasn’t had time to sit down and straighten her back, bent with the hard labor of her past. She shows Ulysses that the black odyssey was never about traveling from one place to the next; it was about traversing from self to self, as seen throughout history, time and culture. Only when he sees himself — and his history — can Ulysses go home.

Under the stars at the Bruns Stage, “black odyssey” often stumbles over the vastness of its ambition, but it never loses sight of its intention. The stage is decorated with ancient Greek ruins, looming over the characters and their actions. Like the ruins onstage, history will always rise above us, never to be forgotten and always to be remembered. That’s where the “self” can only be found — through the actions of our ancestors, our myths, our legends and eventually, ourselves.

Nils Jepson at [email protected].