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Black heaven: a review of Marcus Gardley’s ‘black odyssey’ at Cal Shakes through Sept. 3

August 23, 2017

by Wanda Sabir

Marcus Gardley’s “black odyssey,” currently on stage at Cal Shakes in Orinda, translates the Black Holocaust into modern language. Gardley takes an oral history, Homer’s Grecian hero’s tale, then ruptures and reinterprets it so the folks submerged in the waters of confusion gain clarity.

J. Alphonse Nicholson plays Ulysses Lincoln and Lamont Thompson plays Super Fly Tireseas in Marcus Gardley’s ‘black odyssey,’ directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater. – Photo: Kevin Berne

Those ancestors at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean are resurrected in “Ulysses Lincoln” – a hero and a warrior. Though the journey takes longer than expected, Ulysses tells Nella Pell (Penelope) that he will be back before their child is born – the key here is the promise of return.

Can Nella hold onto that? Is Ulysses’s promise enough to keep their boy safe and free? Will Ulysses come home in time to save his family from the vendetta Great Grand Paw Sidin (actor Aldo Billingslea) plans for the murderer of his son?

Gardley’s Ulysses transforms, translates or reinterprets his people’s story(s) into a parlance his generation can understand. Similar to other transcontinental journeys with linguistic resonance, Africans had to make meaning from context clues, necessity birthing new relationships, survival paramount for the group.

It is in this spirit that Ulysses (actor J. Alphonse Nicholson) offers to take Benevolence Nausicca Sabine (actress Safiya Fredericks) to higher ground to repay the reluctant kindness of her parents: Artex Sabine (actor Michael Gene Sullivan) and Alsendra Sabine (actress Dawn L. Troupe). Floating on a rooftop, the water rising – it does not look like the government is coming to save Black people past or present who find themselves caught in a hurricane, real or symbolic.

If ever a story pointed to the inevitability of life and the choices we make, “black odyssey” is an intellectual argument against freewill. How many of our choices are connected to a legacy we do not understand? Human beings think they are acting alone, but as we see through Ulysses’s lineage, there is a whole posse ready to get down on his behalf and do – from his Great Aunt Tina (Athena) to his blind ancestor who tells him to listen to his dreams; ancestral wisdom lives there. We also see the opposing force (Paw Sidin), who though kin to Ulysses is nonetheless ready to chop his head off.

“black odyssey” crosses landscapes – designer Michael Locher’s set a large ruin, concrete pillars reminders of the Black removal in Oakland, shelter-less wayfarers living in similar decay – under freeways, in fields, bus shelters, doorways, on park benches. It is spiritual warfare and the innocent are armed with whispered songs – invisible ancestors dancing between the beams, hands touching. The gods are all that keep Ulysses safe – Ulysses of course larger than a singular body, he is all Black men stranded and isolated, shipwrecked, alone on a sinking vessel.

When the orphaned Ulysses discovers he is not alone, this communion saves him. Ubuntu, from the Zulu proverb, says we cannot afford to lose one soul. Each loss decreases our human value and potential. The gods know this and eventually so does Ulysses. He realizes that even flawed, his wife and son need him and want him to return.

The remembering aspect of the healing process, that is, the assemblage of the severed parts, is an important step in Ulysses, and by extension Black people’s, march home. Just as Auset (Isis) re-members Ausar (Osiris) and together they make Heru (Horus), who ends the war between warring family, Ulysses as prodigal son, Lazarus risen from the dead, Joseph left to tarry in the prison –  has a key role to play as well in the ordering of the universe.

Diaspora Black people carry “home” within their persons. Along the journey Ulysses learns sanctuary is in the connections between other human beings which shape and mold community. This is one of the lessons of the “Flood,” the shipwrecks, the Long Walk Black people are still walking, still repaving. Ulysses realizes that if he wants his family to survive, he has to save it. The gods are watching, but the work is a human one. It is literally in his hands.

In the foreground are Aldo Billingslea as Great Grand Paw Sidin and Margo Hall as Great Aunt Tina. Behind them are Michael Curry, Dawn L. Troupe and Safiya Fredericks. – Photo: Kevin Berne

“black odyssey” by Marcus Gardley, Oakland’s sun-kissed native son, directed by a visionary Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theatre through Sept. 3, tells this story – the calculated destruction of Black America from chattel slavery to the Black codes, segregation, and the myth of Black inferiority and white supremacy. “black odyssey” stays with the internal struggle actor J. Alphonse Nicholson’s “Ulysses,” a war hero, faces when he looks at what he has become for the nation state: a killer. Like August Wilson’s “Citizen Bartlow,” Ulysses needs his soul cleansed so he can return home. Aunt Ester provides the key, but it is the entire community gathered that sings Citizen into the storm so he can reach the City of Bones.

In Ulysses’s case, it is his Great Aunt Tina (actress Margo Hall) who holds off the wrath of another god, Great Grand Paw Sidin (actor Aldo Billingslea). Sometimes one has to perform a ritual to correct an error. How can the veteran get his humanity back? He’s been wandering for 16 years. Distracted by intentional detours, he has forgotten home. Lost in the Bush of Ghosts, he encounters many deities, but these are false gods, whether it is a police arrest to fill a quota or one of the many spirits at a variety of crossroads the protagonist meets as he follows the life line imprinted on the palm of his hand. All seem intent on stealing what is left of Ulysses’s soul.

In a coma for seven days – a deep, deep sleep – Ulysses finds himself roused or awakened, then washed onto the roof of a house where he meets a stranded family. He has awakened to his past, a place where he knows the outcome. How did Ulysses manage to survive the shipwreck, the bondage, the captivity . . . without direction – 16 years wandering without an anchor?

As lost man looks at the landmarks – King’s death, the four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Emmett Till’s smile and laughter, he reflects on the similarities between what was then and what is now. He wonders who started this war and how he could possible win? Ulysses does not know his people or their story. He and Nella Pell (actress Omozé Idehenre) are all the family either of them know – Nella Pell and son Malachai (actor Michael Curry), unborn when Ulysses leaves for war, anchor his soul, give his life meaning.

With so much ahead of him – new wife, expectant baby, Ulysses is excited to leave for war in peace time. He wants to be a teacher and figures the GI Bill will help with tuition. He tells his anxious bride he will return long before the baby is born. But something happens while Ulysses is in the Gulf, he kills a boy – his cousin. The killing twists something precious, cutting the soldier off from his ability to feel and see clearly. He traverses epochs in this country’s history no one would want to live once, let alone twice – but his journey written in his hands forces the character to face aspects of his person he would rather ignore.

There is no mercy and the plan to destroy Ulysses is tied to the disregard Great Grand Paw Sidin (Billingslea) has for his brother Great Grand Daddy Deus (actor Lamont Thompson) – his walking stick shaped like a lightning bolt – is so beyond anything a mere mortal can comprehend or interrupt, the gods have to step in to save Ulysses Lincoln, the last of his tribe.

There is music and humor and ceremony as the gods – brothers Sidin and Deus (Cane and Abel?) play chess, the pieces their people. Ulysses has killed his uncle, Great Grand Paw Sidin’s son, the one-eyed cyclops, and Paw Sidin is out for blood. Slippery, Great Grand Paw Sidin shows up while Ulysses is away and tries to trick Nella Pell.

All that protects Ulysses from Paw Sidin’s wrath is his Great Aunt Tina and her father, Great Grand Daddy Deus –  Divine origins, yes. Nonetheless, the 16-year odyssey is perilous, yet the love Nella Pell has for her husband throughout the years and the belief Great Aunt Tina has that Ulysses will return, keeps air in tires, the road paved and gas in the tank.

The years pass quickly, Great Aunt Tina leaves her throne to take care of Nella and Malachai. She feels some of Ulysses problems are her family’s fault. No one has ever told him he’s a god. When we meet the family, the boy is 16 and Ulysses is revived on the floating rooftop a crucial time in a journey that has lasted longer than anyone expected. How does he return to land? He has been lost for so long. Where are the landmarks? Who are the guides on a journey General Tubman articulated so long ago for those who would listen?

Omozé Idehenre as Nella Pell and J. Alphonse Nicholson as Ulysses Lincoln embrace. – Photo: Kevin Berne

Ulysses shows up at a terminal in Louisiana, but he doesn’t know who he is. His lineage is stunted. He doesn’t know his family and so cannot board the train. How does an orphan claim a heritage he cannot remember? Even when the details are lost, the body remembers the journey – the map etched in our DNA – fingerprints, palms of hands, retinal scan.

The ancestors are guides for Ulysses on his journey; from the moment he falls overboard they hold him up and keep him from drowning. Great Aunt Tina, a divine being living with humans, knows her nephew is alive and continues to remind Nella Pell that until a body washes onto the shore, there is a chance Ulysses is alive.

Nella loves her lost husband, yet after 16 years, at a time when their son is challenging “whiteness” and getting beat up in the process – the world not a safe place for such a query. Nella wonders if she needs to marry for her son’s sake.

Artistic director Eric Ting’s direction in this production shows his grasp of the largess that is this story in his excellent choice of cast: Aldo Billingslea, Michael Curry, Safiya Fredericks, Margo Hall, Omozé Idehenre, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Michael Gene Sullivan, Lamont Thompson, Dawn L. Troupe and collaborating artists Linda Tillery, master storyteller and scholar, as vocal coach and musical director Molly Holm as vocal composer and vocal ensemble director Latanya D. Tigner and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes as chorographers and Dede M. Ayite, costume designer.

It is Mr. Ayite who said Sanfoka, the Akan adinkra or symbol of a bird with its head facing backward, tells us to “go back and fetch it”: our rituals, our stories, our swords, to guide his choices in fabrics and design. It’s the ‘60s, and revolution is in the air ala T. Carlis Roberts’s sound design.

In “black odyssey,” Gardley has articulated the African Diaspora Odu or story. Set in Oakland, not only is there a specificity to the landmarks anchoring a story which has multiple geographies as Ulysses’s travels illustrate: Acorn Apartments, Lake Merritt, Bishop O’Dowd High School, Fruitvale BART – these places have electric charges attached which shock certain folks along a circuitry that is the Black American experience. Gardley’s Oakland, then “Land of the Blacks,” is heaven.

The Association of Black Psychologists have a healing workshop for community called Emotional Emancipation Circles or EEC, which provides Black participants with keys to unlock and dismantle the mythology of Black inferiority and white supremacy, through the use of culture, songs, poetry and dance. Art and culture are key to Black survival and Black transformation, whether it’s Diana Ross, Tina Turner, James Brown or Superfly – all a part of the landscape Gardley’s Ulysses meets along his journey home.

The drum beat opens the procession – Nicholson’s character sets the tone with his percussive beats – he hits buckets and when they are not present wooden sticks or claves act as a reminder to Ulysses to continue to remember his stories, the journey and his goal to reach land and find his family – to go home.

The opening scenes are ones of pageantry – the divine ones make a grand entrance: beauty and power present in the sacred song they sing of ancient rites of passage, sacred journeys undertaken, lost turns and lost ones. Dressed in gold and white, we witness alchemy – floss turned into gold. The djali or griot (Michael Gene Sullivan) tells the audience to enjoy the journey, dance and shout.

From left are Michael Gene Sullivan as Artex Sabine, the djali or griot, Michael Curry as Malachai, the son, Dawn L. Troupe as Circe, Omozé Idehenre as Nella Pell and Safiya Fredericks as Benevolence Nausicca Sabine. – Photo: Kevin Berne

As the inhabitants of Olympus, participants in this black odyssey, make a grand entrance onto the stage, dressed as the divine beings they are – elegant and fine singing an African folk song – they sing of ancient rites of passage, sacred journeys undertaken, lost turns and lost ones.

Later these same deities reappear, fans swirling along with umbrellas and players join us on stage as a narrator gives us the preamble. It is Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” the Negro spirituals coded language, sacred Odu outlined in Ulysses’s palm, his lifeline connected to a larger tapestry his Nella Pell keeps spinning like other great weavers: Great Aunt Tina, the Goddess Athena or Anasi, the great trickster, webmaster (spider).

The tapestry holds the past and present and points to the future, the son, 16 the number for Orunmila, the orisha or deity of divination or destiny. His priests use oracles: ikines (palm nuts) and the okuele (diviner’s chain) to tell “where a person’s fate is headed” (http://santeriachurch.org/the-orishas/).

“black odyssey” is not a vacation in the Bahamas. Similar to other Gardley work, the contemporary resonance of “black odyssey” leaves a taste in one’s mouth chewing gum will not erase. Listen to an interview with Aldo Billingslea (Paw Sidin) on Wanda’s Picks Radio show Aug. 14.

Tickets are flying out of the box office, so buy two tickets and take an elder and a youthful friend. Sunday, Aug. 27, following the 4 p.m. performance, audiences can enjoy a conversation with cast. Another performance has been added, on Aug. 26, 2 p.m.

Tickets start at $39 – use code Odyssey39 when ordering online at calshakes.org or by phone 510-548-9666. It’s at the Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda. Dress warmly. It is outdoors. There is a free shuttle from the BART station. There are $20 discount tickets for students, elders, and folks 30 and younger, between 12 noon and 2 p.m. day of performance. Call for details.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.

2 thoughts on “Black heaven: a review of Marcus Gardley’s ‘black odyssey’ at Cal Shakes through Sept. 3

  1. celestine henderson

    We (Oakland) are so proud of Marcus. The question is can any good thing come from Oakland? Yes, there are a lot of good people here. I would like to thank the cast and Eric for the time and work they put into this great play. My prayers are forever with you.

    Reply
  2. Carol Wyatt

    This work was MAGNIFICENT! I'm a 54 year old woman that lives in West Oakland but originally from NYC and grew up around playwrights and black creative genius (Alice Childress was my brother's Godmother) so watching this was so thrilling….it reminds me that creativity can't be contained and has to be supported…storytellers (Grios) are history tellers and this performance as a collective development was so worthwhile…I would follow these stories and we need to support more brilliant created art like this..Especially in communities of color like Oakland, Bayview in SF, etc. .Bravo.

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