Playwright Marcus Gardley has won prestigious awards and been compared with such giants as August Wilson and Tennessee Williams for the poeticism of his language. But he's also been criticized for writing plays that lack structure and for creating characters more symbolic than real. The Denver Center Theatre Company commissioned Gardley's Black Odyssey for last year's New Play Summit and has now mounted the world premiere under the direction of Chay Yew, another major and much-discussed force in contemporary theater. The results both validate and contradict the criticisms of Gardley's work.
Black Odyssey is based on Homer's epic. It tells the story of a soldier, Ulysses Lincoln, returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Like his namesake, he is forced to wander for many years before he can return home, encountering supernatural beings and many strange adventures along the way. But Gardley has transformed the narrative, using song, myth and metaphor to tell the story of the black experience in the United States — and Ulysses Lincoln's voyage is inward rather than physical. To find his way home, he must internalize and understand his culture and history, with all its suffering and joy, and in the process discover who he is.
The gods who influence his destiny are as petty, vengeful and unpredictable as the gods of Greek myth, and they also represent his ancestors. Humans and gods intermingle freely; the line between reality and the otherwordly fades, and time collapses in on itself. Deus (Zeus) and Paw Sidin (Poseidon) play chess to decide Ulysses's fate — Paw Sidin wants revenge because Ulysses killed his son, the Cyclops. They are at the same time all-powerful figures and a pair of bickering old farts. And throughout the play, there are references to all kinds of seminal events and figures in African-American history: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the Scottsboro boys and the four little girls murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 16, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 203-893-4100, denvercenter.org.
The war Ulysses has endured doesn't play much of a role; it's just a peg on which to hang the story, although eventually we do learn about the war memory that haunts him and prevents his return — and it's a disappointingly standard piece of dramaturgy. In general, the wonderful imagination and idiosyncrasy that light up so much of Black Odyssey are missing from the more realistic scenes, in particular those involving Nella Pee's (Penelope's) struggles with her rebellious teenage son.
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But when the play works, which it does most of the time, it provides a vivid illustration of the magical power of storytelling and memory. The transformation of god to human and human to god mesmerizes. When Ulysses drowns at sea, his protector, Aunt Tina (Athena, born fully armed from Zeus's forehead and representative of wisdom and justice, among many other virtues), sings him back to life with the beautiful melody "Allunde Alluia." She's clad majestically in pure gold. When she comes to earth to watch over Nella Pee and Malachai, she's just ordinary Aunt Tina, and her power ebbs visibly as she becomes more and more human.
The tech — deceptively simple set, clever costumes, supple lighting, terrific sound — is exquisite, and the cast is filled with superb actors, many of whom sing and move as expressively as they act. Jason Bowen is an appealing Ulysses, though he's written more as an everyman than as a flesh-and-blood person. The character of Nella Pee, played by Shamika Cotton, has a similar problem with mundane dialogue, though she's still an empathetic force. When Cleavant Derricks cuts loose with his magnificent baritone as Zeus, it's wonderful. Tony Todd is a powerful presence as Paw Sidin: You really have no problem believing he's more than human — and when he actually does becomes human, as John Suitor, he still carries a strange and alien air, all the while remaining pretty damn funny. Brenda Pressley is a fine and compassionate Aunt Tina. Kim Staunton has several roles, but the show-stopper is Circe — which is also a writing triumph for playwright Gardley. The famous eating scene in Terry Richardson's movie Tom Jones pales in comparison to Circe's description of the feast she's prepared for Ulysses. Who but Staunton could combine poetry and raunch so effectively and with so much charm and power?
With Black Odyssey, playwright Marcus Gardley has come tantalizingly close to home.