Playwright Marcus Gardley’s brilliantly conceived black odyssey made its world debut at the Denver Center for Performing Arts January 17.
Drawing upon Greek poet Homer’s epic story The Odyssey, Marcus Gardley weaves a tale in black odyssey of an African American soldier wandering for 13 years after serving in Afghanistan. The soldier, Ulysses, is not only trying to find his way home to his wife and teenage son in Harlem; he is also trying to find himself, damaged mentally by the war, through his ancestry.
Through a series of vignettes—flashbacks and real time—Gardley shows the hardships Ulysses encounters on his journey through key historical events in black history, while concurrently portraying the trials of his wife raising a son as a single mom. Ulysses will not make it home until the curse of the gods is lifted.
In the program notes, the place is described as Heaven, which is Harlem, then New Orleans, then memory, then everywhere and wherever. The time is 2001, thirteen years later, and times in between.
If that sounds complex, that’s because it is; and unless you have a solid grasp of Greek mythology and African American culture, the play may get away from you. Study up.
One thing that’s clear as a bell is Gardley’s dazzling dialogue. Listen carefully, and you will come away with a great appreciation of the poet in the playwright. The scene where the goddess Circe (played hysterically by Denver Center’s Kim Staunton) tempts Ulysses with her delicious descriptions of a soul food spread is show stopping.
The other constant is the extraordinary acting of this cast, with nine actors playing 20 different roles between the black characters and mythological ones named after Homer's gods and goddesses. TV, film and stage star Tony Todd owns the stage with his 6-foot 5-inch frame and commanding voice as Paw Sidin (Poseidon, god of the sea) and John Suitor (suitor to Ulysses’ wife). Brenda Pressley is a confident Aunt Tina (goddess Athena) who comes to help out Nella Pee (Penelope), Ulysses’ long-suffering wife played by Shamika Cotton. Jason Bowen plays the bewildered Ulysses Lincoln.
This play could stand alone on its portrayal of African American culture with Gardley’s language and songs, even without the Ulysses connection. (Yes, he wrote the lyrics too.) The car entrance of “African American conscience,” personified by an afro-haired, gold chain-wearing dude from the 70s (Cleavant Derricks) is a pricelessly funny but poignant take on black culture. “Sometimes history is made by ignoring me,” he says.
Director Chay Yew uses the moving circular stage to great advantage, symbolizing the aimless wandering of the soldier and of many people who are on an endless journey within themselves.
black odyssey was developed through the 2013 Colorado New Play Summit where it was first heard as a staged reading.
black odyssey plays the Space Theatre at the DCPA through February 16, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.; February 7 & 8, 8 p.m.; and February 9, 6:30 p.m.
For tickets, call 303-893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.