The poetic epic by Marcus Gardley, black odyssey, presented at the Central Square Theater in a co-production by The Front Porch Arts Collective and Underground Railway Theater, is a can’t miss theatre event. While the play will certainly provide deep connections for aficionados of Greek mythology and African American history, black odyssey’s core themes of pain, family, and redemption will move any audience member in this smart, musical, and joyful riff on Homer’s classic story of homecoming.
An Oakland native, Gardley emulates Shakespeare in his ability to intermingle the fantastic with the common: in this case the all-powerful Greek gods with the realities of racism, government indifference, and familial longing. Additionally, much of this 3-hour play is written in verse— Gardley considered himself a poet before a playwright—which includes a monologue dripping with sensual food imagery delivered by the enthralling Ramona Lisa Alexander as Circe. The play is also funny; the pun connecting Apollo the god and Apollo the Harlem theater is just one of many ‘blink and you miss it’ jokes in this rhythmic, quick-paced play.
This particular iteration of black odyssey is set in the Boston area. Although the original versions were set in Harlem and Oakland respectively, Gardley was able to localize this production after interviewing twenty locals: for example, Ulysses’ son Malachi runs into trouble at BC High when confronted by rich white boys from Hingham. I enjoyed hearing Gardley’s voice and cadence regarding Boston area locales—I particularly enjoyed the line “In Jamaica, nobody speaks plain”—but I also believe the play would have worked just as well if it remained either in New York or Oakland. This is considering Gardley’s more intimate knowledge of these two areas and considering the play jumps around time and location anyway.
In the play, veteran Ulysses Lincoln, performed with quiet power by Brandon G. Green, is adrift at sea after a post-9/11 tour in the Persian Gulf. Like his mythological counterpart, Ulysses is trying to get home to his wife, Nella Pell—the focused Elle Borders—and his son Malachi— the sharp Hubens “Bobby” Cius. But the god of the sea, Paw Siden, played with wicked delight by Regie Gibson, has other plans in mind. The play begins grandly and becomes quite personal and real by the end.
Ulysses searches for home while also searching for his past. As he travels through African American history, the rest of the ensemble adopts myriad characters with aplomb. I saw black odyssey in the large open-air Cal Shakes Theater just outside of Oakland in 2017 and this Bay Area production was able to emphasize the grandness and largeness of the tale. Lacking the same level of funding as the Oakland production, Central Square’s black odyssey shines in its focus on intimacy and detail in its alley style seating. You can see the minutia of gestures when the actors are singing a capella in black outfits. You are a part of the production when the audience snaps fingers to create a rainstorm. One standout scene is when Ulysses meets the sirens, who are Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and James Brown—played by Carolyn Saxon, Ramona Lisa Alexander, and Kai Thomani Tshikosi respectively. This joyful scene had the audience clapping and laughing as the three actors sang, danced, and leaned into these larger than life characters. The joy emanating from the actors only feet away was infectious.
While this production came to life when focusing on the personal, it was over-encumbered by a large number of props and costumes. There was little cohesion in the design element which led to physical materials not adding to or gelling with the world of the play. A rubber Abraham Lincoln mask clashing with a toy subway car clashing with a handmade model raft.
Ultimately, The Front Porch Arts Collective and Underground Railway Theater’s black odyssey did not need this extra physical pizazz anyway; the actors already brought enough to spare. And the intimate Central Square only emphasizes the nuance and energy of the joyful and giving ensemble. While black odyssey is about many things, my own takeaway is its emphasis on community. The play succeeds in bringing the audience into a community in a way only live theatre can. See this play.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.