Monday, April 08, 2013

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in Association with the AAACC present a staged reading of Marcus Gardley's Black Odyssey

Saturday morning my plans were many: ride my bike, finish hanging curtains in the living room and kitchen, go to the First Annual Halal Festival at Masjidul Warith Deen, but time slipped away and I just got to two out of four before time was up and I had to head over to San Francisco by way West Oakland BART to pick up a friend, and together head over to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre staged reading of a Marcus Gardley original, Black Odyssey.

Marcus is brilliant, and at almost 30 his light is shining so brightly, at the end of the two act play, not only as I blinded, I was speechless--so full of emotion was I. And I was not alone, men and women were wiping away tears as Ulysses Lincoln made it home.

Based loosely on Homer's Odyssey, this journey was one most in the audience recognized, yet perhaps had not articulated it so masterfully prior to this production. We know the trail of bones, whether it is Black Mary Wilkes following Aunt Ester Tyler: a former slave and a "soul-cleanser's" instructions so that Citizen Bartlow can get right with himself or Great Aunt Tina (Athena) pleading with her dad, Great Grand Daddy Deus (Zeus) to talk to Great Grand Paw Sidin (Percedian) to save her kin from drowning.

It is interesting that like Citizen, Ulysses Lincoln, a Gulf War veteran who has blinded Polyphemus, a one eyed cyclops, Great Grand Paw Sidin's or Poseidon's son, which is why Sidin is trying to drown him, also has to go to the City of Bones. He needs to find his story or learn his history so he can get home.

As he travels, he meets friends and foes--even family. Maps are etched in hands and he finds paths or trails similar to his own. These familiar markings make the journey, if not less, harrowing, certainly satisfying for Ulysses who has been lost so long his memories are legends he shares with his new friend, Nella Pell.  She saves his life. Stranded people with limited rations are not the most sympathetic rescuers, but the child Nella Pell convinces her dad to not shoot him and her mom to let him stay.

There is a lot of water imagery, floods and heavy rains--Ulysses's is at first confused, until he realizes that he is in the future, the journey a memory past, one previously inaccessible, thus the forced journey. He will not get a pass home until he knows where he comes from, not physically which when asked he'd say, New York City, but deeper who are his people? How many generations can he name? What ancestors' stories does he carry in  his bones?

Gardley writes of blood memories, trapped energy, clotted or stuck souls unable to get home. Ulyssey's meets a family floating on a roof--there is a flood and Artez and Alsendra Sabine wait as the water rises for the "government" to save them. Ulysses, a bit less optimistic, tries to get them to notice the water rising and abandon hope of something outside themselves saving the couple and their daughter, Nella Pell.

What is blood but water? First blue and then when air hits it the color changes? The human body is 90 percent water, and if the planet is a metaphor for our vehicles for this journey, then what does this memory-blood-water connection mean?

The sibling rivalry between Paw Sidin and big brother Daddy Deus is so amusing, as are the relationships between other characters, I guess too numerous to name that the actors portray, yet are absent from the program.

The major characters are nine (9), yet many more fill out the story like Malachi (Telemachus), Ulysses's son who is born while his dad is away and does not know him; Ulysses's wife, Benevolence Nausicca Sabine (Penelope). 

In the world these characters inhabit, while gods technically can't cross each other, Great Aunt Tina , leaves home to go to stay with Ulysses while he is away. Hanging with human beings changes her. She loses her looks, and the human container starts to give her pain and trouble. Magic ceases to work in this realm or perhaps what she notices how hard the life her Ulysses and others trapped in this realm manage.

Ancestors speak to Ulysses. He dreams and in this state he and his wife Benevolence speaks.

There was much to recommend Black Odyssey: the staging, which was marvelous, especially the various songs and choreography (smile). The cast, which was stellar. When Aldo Billinglea's Ulysses makes it home to Benevolence (Britney Frazier), one sees tears rolling down his cheeks. And then there is the single mother, Benevolence--she wants to believer her husband is gone, but something makes her continue to hold on even after 14 years.

Margo Hall as Great Aunt Tina, exemplifies how much our ancestors love us and how hard they work for our salvation and happiness even if their advocacy doesn't work out for the best. Aunt Tina begs her dad to stop Great Uncle Paw Siddin, portrayed by Darryl V. Jones, but his hands are ethically tied.

Black Odyssey covers the period Ulysses's been lost, black people from our earliest memory of enslavement to the present. Stranded on rooftops waiting for a savior, Ulysses's sees the Four Little Girls from Birmingham, Emmett Till from Chicago, Martin King and others. Is this his fate to be stranded?

If Ulysses's represents post-Apocalypse or life after captivity, then how much longer must we wander as a people? When will our choices open the the hinges which are rusted shut? True, like Ulysses we've inherited trauma--mother dead before he was born, Ulysses is without family or at least he thinks he is an orphan until he starts traveling and realizes how much family there is waiting to claim him.

The memory is in the blood and perhaps one has to spill the blood to release the spirit trapped inside? Sounds like what happened with Jesus--the trapped divinity wasn't released until crucifixion. That's when the magic begins--water becomes buoyant whereby Jesus can walk on its surface. What does he learn while blue that he didn't know when the water was red?

Paw Siddin admits to his stirring the waters, yet Ulysses does have choices. Paw Siddin reminds me of Olukun, the orisha who rules the deepest waters. Post-traumatic slave syndrome, this genetic memory and our participation in its continued perpetuation, that is, our own enslavement is no skinny dip.

The cast is rounded out by: Steven Anthony Jones as director, who plays the role of Artex Sabine; Halili Knox is a number of characters, her primary one is Alsendra Sabine; Kehinde Koyejo as Nella Pell; Dimitri Woods as Malachi; Carl Lumbly as Great Grand Daddy Deus; Bert van Aslsburg is stage manager.

Visit or call (415) 474-8800 to find out about subscriptions, other free readings. The next one is May 4, 2 p.m., at MoAD We Are Proud to Present by Jackie Sibblies Drury.

The playwright's work was a part of Bay Area Playwright's Festival about two years ago. Listen to the interview:


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