Veteran actors, familiar storytelling, make “black odyssey” great entertainment in times like these
“black odyssey” is an Afrocentric comedy drama on stage at California Shakespeare Theater — CalShakes — that closes September 3, 2017.
The play is an adaptation of “The Odyssey,” one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. Even if Greek tragedy ain’t your thing, you’ll love “black odyssey.” That’s because the playwright, Oakland homie Marcus Gardley, weaves together today’s issues, familiar Black folklore and music, and Bay Area landmark references to make the show relatable, and keep you entertained for the entire two-and-a-half hours of the play.
The story centers around “Ulysses Lincoln,” played by J. Alphonse Nicholson, and his 16-year journey home from fighting as a soldier in Afghanistan. During the journey, Ulysses, his family, and the people he meets along the way, are pawns in a chess game being played by the gods.
Even for a one-time fanboy of Greek mythology like me, following the storyline was, at first, bogged down by trying to sort out the deities, fable references and timeline changes — that is, until I stopped trying to connect the mythical dots and just settled in to enjoy the performance! And there is much to enjoy about the show — from the strikingly beautiful and intricate costumes and makeup, to the minimal but powerful set decoration, and the soulful, well-choreographed musical numbers.
The storytelling opened-up my emotional side more than a few times, especially when the themes turned toward the ubiquitous, never-ending African-American struggles of finding social consciousness, staying connected to our roots, and valuing family identity.
The presentation of these more serious elements at times wavered between being a bit rushed and getting too deep. But, eventually, everything started flowing at just the right pace, starting with Nicholson’s passionate delivery of an excellent soliloquy to kick-off the 2nd act. The Cadillac scene featuring prolific TV/theater actor, and Vallejo native Lamont Thompson was entertaining, and a Right On! moment for me. UC Berkeley lecturer and accomplished actor Margo Hall, as Ulysses’ great-grandmother, did a good job of breaking down my stiff upper lip. Berkeley native, accomplished regional actor and Fremont drama teacher Dawn L. Troupe, as the seductress Circe, quite literally chews the scenery with an orgasmic monologue that connects soul food to sex as only a sista could!
The actors all did great work, and all seemed to be very experienced pros who have taken ownership of their roles, which helps make all the characters seem very real, even if the premise is a fable.
There are some adult elements — some humorous — that make the show more PG-13 than G-rated.
This was my first time visiting the Bruns Amphitheater, so my mind and body were woefully unprepared for the chill of the night, outdoors in the Orinda Hills (DUH – “amphitheater”)! Fortunately, once the emergency coat-and-blanket stash in the trunk of the Bearmobile was deployed, I was able to focus on the show! Be forewarned: Calls for dressing in layers are to be taken seriously! In fact, look forward to never un-layering!
Much props to CalShakes for staging this play! I was glad to support the show with my hard-earned ducketts, and look forward to seeing more shows like this in the Orinda Hills, soon!
MORE INFO: The California Shakespeare Theater production of Marcus Gardley’s “black odyssey” plays through Sept. 3 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Shakespeare Festival Way, Orinda. Free shuttles between Orinda BART and the theater. Tickets are $20-$92. Call 510-548-9666 or visit calshakes.org.
Also published on Medium.