Review: ‘black odyssey’ Sails Through Black Past and Present

Imagine fitting the various arenas of Black history — protests, from the March on Washington to Black Lives Matter; deaths, from the enslaved lost on the Atlantic crossing to Trayvon Martin; music, from Negro spirituals to Biggie Smalls — into one of the foundational texts of civilization, so old that it predates the written word itself.

Things are going to get a bit crowded.

But that isn’t to say that what the poet-playwright Marcus Gardley has accomplished in his often stunning but also muddled “black odyssey,” which opened Sunday, is any less impressive for the sizable challenge it presents.

Set in modern-day Harlem and beyond, “black odyssey” follows the journey of Ulysses Lincoln (Sean Boyce Johnson), a soldier in Afghanistan who unknowingly shot and killed the son of the sea god Paw Sidin (Jimonn Cole). The god’s vengeful machinations, along with Ulysses’ own guilt, have deterred him from getting back to his wife, Nella P. (D. Woods), and son, Malachai (Marcus Gladney, Jr.). The god-in-chief, Deus (James T. Alfred), and his daughter, Athena, or Aunt Tee (Harriett D. Foy), an ancestor of Ulysses who becomes human to support Nella and Malachai while the hero is away, try to help Ulysses despite Paw Sidin’s obstacles. Ultimately, though, Ulysses discovers that the only way he can absolve himself and return home is by finding his history.

Presented by the Classic Stage Company, “black odyssey” opens with a chorus’s invocation: “Let’s begin at the beginning so we may end at the end.” This cheeky, faux-cryptic line introduces Gardley’s work, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, as not just inspired by the plot and characters of the Odyssey but also by the formal structure of the epic poem, which begins with the same circularity and foreshadowing. The dialogue snaps with playful alliteration, repetition and puns, even rhymes that punch up lines rather than overpower them. (“God knows you could use a hot bath, hot comb, and a hot oil treatment,” Aunt Tee says indelicately to Nella, inviting herself into her home.)

And the script demonstrates Gardley’s appreciation for and understanding of Homeric storytelling: As in the Odyssey, where so little of the main action takes place in real time but instead comes to life in hearsay and recollections, so too does “black odyssey” manipulate time and place, memory and fantasy, in the simple act of telling a story. (Gardley’s film adaptation of “The Color Purple” is forthcoming.)

More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This Spring

The cast is a delight, especially when Walker-Webb’s direction allows them to let loose with the comedy. Foy is uproarious as the wise and wisecracking Aunt Tee. Adrienne C. Moore, as the enchantress Circe, provocatively stalks across the stage, sticks out her bottom at Ulysses and stretches out horizontally in front of him, all the while describing a sensual menu of Southern comfort food (“Neck them neck bones … dump my dumplings,” she begs Ulysses in some culinary-themed foreplay). Cole’s Paw Sidin is wily and despicable, though as cool as his long, blue buttoned jacket.

The heroes themselves are less interesting, though to be fair their roles give them less room for such play, given that they must carry the show’s drama. But Ulysses jittering around with desire as he’s seduced by Circe, Nella going angry-Black-mother on Malachai, and Malachai giving woke Gen Z-style speeches to his elders are all, in their comedy, more compelling than in their moments of sorrow and joy.

In general, when the play leans to parody, offering sirens styled as Dream Girls and the blind prophet Tiresias as a funky, supa-dupa-fly afro-wearing bus driver (Alfred, clowning around wholesomely), it becomes a whole different production — entertaining, though from left field.

Because otherwise, the work’s copious name-dropping, and its conflation of characters and events from Black history, transforms it into a game of Black bingo: Check references to the Scottsboro Boys, the Birmingham church bombing, the Middle Passage, Hurricane Katrina and the spirituals (though beautifully performed, particularly by Woods and Gladney) for the winning card.

And “black odyssey” has a lot of fun with naming, in the same spirit as its source text (in the Odyssey, Odysseus says he is “Nobody” or “No one”) — but between Malachai Malcolm Little Lincoln and Circe Tubman Sojourner Rosa Ida B. Nzinga, among others, even that touch of humor becomes little more than an overdone declaration of the play’s Blackness.

Formal and informal classicists who’ve attended the College of Homer and the University of Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton may also have some follow-up questions about this Harlem odyssey’s modus operandi. For example, the play represents the gods exercising their power in the human world as Deus and Paw Sidin playing a chess game. But the metaphor is overused and raises more questions: Do these gods have laws and limitations to follow? Deus says they’ve been playing since 1619, so does that mean they are to blame for the state of Black Americans? Are they only gods of Black people; are they the same gods from Homer?

More generally “black odyssey” sometimes struggles to strike the right balance of working from the original text and departing from it; the tension is most apparent when the play blatantly explains itself, by, for example, naming a character Benevolence Nausicca Calypso Sabine (a transformative Tẹmídayo Amay) to make clear that she’s an amalgamation of several young female characters Odysseus encountered in his travels.

David Goldstein’s set beautifully transforms the thrust stage at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater with an elevated platform that appears to ripple and reflect like the actual sea. Two ends of a sailboat, painted with a city skyline and used to represent a home, a rooftop or, of course, a sailing vessel, go a long way, but the production could use a few other pieces or props to make its different settings clear. Adam Honoré’s lighting is appropriately august, when Deus stands with a trail of warm yellow light behind him, opposite the chilly dark blue of Paw Sidin’s lighting, and aquamarine blues and greens reflect off the sea-stage, submerging the whole theater in an oceanic underworld. Similarly on point is Kindall Houston Almond’s costume design, which showcases such a variety of fashions from different periods and aesthetics: bright, flowing robes, a black baseball cap with a Basquiat-style crown, huaraches, a.k.a., the unofficial shoes of every Caribbean man of a certain age.

This classic-meets-modern, Greek-meets-Black production traverses a lot of ground in its two-and-a-half-hour running time, making the journey feel tiresome by the end. Still, “black odyssey” offers a set of heroes — and villains — and a grand spectacle of Blackness to make the trip worthwhile.

Black Odyssey
Through March 26 at Classic Stage Company, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Source: Read Full Article