Marcus Gardley debuts Black Odyssey at New Play Summit

Marcus Gardley, one of the five writers featured in this year's New Play Summit, has received several honors and awards -- including the PEN/Laura Pels award for Mid-Career Playwright -- and has been widely produced. His Black Odyssey, an ambitious, large-cast production that most theaters would have trouble accommodating, was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company for the Summit.

"When I came here, I was on my first rewrite," says Gardley, who has been in residence two weeks. "I've done two since then, re-writing every day and hardly sleeping: You're in rehearsal during the day, writing at night. It's a challenge, but this is what it's about."

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"The Denver Center, unlike most theaters in the country, really lets you write what you want to write, encourages you to think big and outside the box, and has the resources to support a big production," he says. "I think the play has really taken off and become better. I had complete say in the casting, and to have actors in the room every day --- they inspire and challenge you. They're co-writing it, in a way. It's the greatest gift. The Center creates a playwright-centered process, and you really can see what you're working with; there's a group of people around you that you bring in."

Black Odyssey retells the epic story of travel and homecoming using African-American history; the protagonist is a soldier returning from the Gulf War. "The idea is that to get home one should know their history and know where they are," Gardley says. As for those rewrites, "One major discovery I made was that we knew why the main character was lost but not step by step how he got from one place to the next on his journey."

Gardley has also worked on the songs in the play to ensure that each one comes out of "a real moment." These songs represent a form of healing and coming together, he says. And "the last thing I tried to work on was a huge thread about the ancestors he meets in these different worlds; each ancestor gives him something that's a clue to how to get home." The style is dreamlike, Gardley adds, with elements of magic realism.

Gardley cites August Wilson as a powerful influence: "He's one of my idols -- his love for history, the way he sees history as a means of understanding who you are in the present and for going forward into the future." In fact, Gardley received personal encouragement from Wilson after entering a contest that Wilson was judging. He also found himself seated next to the great playwright at the opening of Radio Golf, Wilson's last play. "He said to me, 'I'm coming to see your play. I cannot wait,'" Gardley remembers.

But Wilson died before Gardley's dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory opened.

You can see the reading of Black Odyssey this weekend, though, when the Summit fills the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis, today through Sunday, February 11. In addition to Gardley, the featured playwrights are writers Laura Eason, Karen Zacarias, Catherine Trieschmann and Matthew Lopez; there will be readings all three days and productions of two plays first read at last year's Summit in the evenings: Michael Mitnick's Ed, Downloaded and Laura Feldman's Grace, or the Art of Climbing. For more information, call 303-893-4100 or go to the Denver Center website.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman