Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and James Brown don’t appear in Homer’s Odyssey. But they do make memorable cameos as Sirens in black odyssey written by Oakland native Marcus Gardley. He retells the tale of Ulysses’ journey home by mashing up literary, political, and pop cultural references. The blind prophet Tiresias (here, punningly, as Tireseas) rolls out in a convertible Cadillac dressed up as Super Fly. Zeus and Poseidon are reimagined as chess-playing gods Great Grand Daddy Deus (Lamont Thompson) and Great Grand Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea), respectively.
The playwright transports the ancient Greek hero (J. Alphonse Nicholson) forward in time to 2001. Ulysses assures his wife Nella Pell — aka Nella P., a poignant Omozé Idehenre — that his recent enlistment will only keep him away for six months. It’s peacetime, after all. Shortly thereafter, 9/11 takes place, and he is among the first to be deployed to the Afghanistan. Gardley makes his 16 years of travel back home explicitly a psychological journey. Ulysses experiences a traumatic event in the war, and then, literally and figuratively, loses his way.
Running alongside his adventures are Nella’s life as a single mom to their son Malachai (Michael Curry) and the meddling gods of Mt. Olympus — by way of Africa. Gardley’s story is about a Black family. This change in milieu not only updates the time period but it also opens the play outward to include the reality of what it means to be Black in America. By melding Greek gods with African deities, he’s created a new mythology. Or, as some of the brightly patterned costumes suggest, he’s riffing on Afrofuturism.
This mixture of ancient and modern, epic poetry and pop culture, could have ended up scattershot. Eric Ting’s impressive direction prevents that from happening. After seeing An Octoroon last month under his direction at Berkeley Rep and then black odyssey, it’s apparent that Ting knows how to extract clarity from a text as expertly as he knows how to work with an ensemble of actors. He places them on stage so that their expressive faces and voices reach the audience. But they also talk to each other naturally, intimately, the way that people do off stage.
Gardley’s characterizations, especially of the women, provide every actor with at least one, if not several, opportunities to shine. Margo Hall, whose main role as Great Aunt Tina is the goddess Athena come down from Heaven to protect Ulysses. Alternately, she summons up a long-legged Tina Turner and a great-grandmother whose back is bent over from years of toil. Dawn L. Troupe performs a Rabelaisian monologue with such richness and humor the audience paused to give her an ovation. And Safiya Fredericks brought wit, charm and wisdom to a role that could have merely been played coyly.
At the ending of An Octoroon, the cast harmonized on a version of Michael Kiwanuka‘s song “Black Man In A White World.” In this production, the cast sings spirituals throughout. These songs add even more texture to a play that’s already layered with affecting emotions. You’ll play them back in your head the next day. They’re songs that make you feel healed. They’re songs that remind you of how much damage has been done.
black odyssey, through Sept. 3, at California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, 510-548-9666 or calshakes.org