Static mixes with music as radio signals fade in, the lights come up on Homer G. & the Rhapsodies in the Fall of Detroit, and urban hip-hop dancers move casually to the sounds of WILL-FM — broadcasting, we hear, from Champaign-Urbana, Ill. A disc jockey observes the action from his booth (a stone balcony situated high above the set, designed by Clay James, with lighting by Jeffrey Kelly), itself a replica of a classical ruin that has been strung with rigging to suggest a ship. The ensemble, each member of which will play a variety of roles, narrates a myth that, according to the very necessary program notes, originated in Africa. They describe the creation of the planet and finish — in a delightful and ironic touch — by tossing out a basketball painted to look like a globe. It's a powerful theatrical moment that stands out like an island of clarity in an otherwise turbid sea of mythological and contemporary references.
Written by Ifa Bayeza (who also designed the costumes) and directed by Clinton Turner Davis, Homer G. is an ambitious and beautifully performed recasting of Homer's account of the fall of Troy. Relocated to the urban ruins of Detroit, “Episode I” attempts to set the stage for the Trojan War by dramatizing how Paris (abandoned in infancy by his parents, Hecuba and Priam, reacting to a prophecy that he would cause the destruction of the city) came to be the judge in a beauty contest of goddesses, and how he came to be Helen's abductor. All of which is straightforward and familiar enough and which should lend itself in an intriguing way to updating. But Bayeza — apparently anxious about filling in all the details of the story's background — gives Homer G. a structure that takes two chronological steps back for every step forward.
The central occasion for both myth and play is the wedding of the sea nymph Thetis, daughter of the gods Nereus and Doris. Because of another prophecy that Thetis will bear a son who will be greater than his father, she is spurned for marriage by both Zeus and Poseidon, gods of thunder and the sea, respectively. The only bridegroom to come forward is the mortal Peleus. All the gods are invited to the wedding except for Discord, an angry goddess who shows up anyway. She brings a golden apple, which she offers to the winner of a beauty contest to be judged by Paris, in which the finalists are Athena, goddess of wisdom; Hera, Zeus' wife; and Aphrodite, goddess of love. Each offers Paris a bribe. The one he accepts, Aphrodite's, stipulates that he will be rewarded with the most beautiful woman in the world.
In Bayeza's version of the story, Nereus has become Congressman Morgan Nevius (James Brooks) of Detroit, whose daughter, Thetis (Lisa McTiller), is about to marry M'Pele (Peter J. Macon), an African prince. Narration is by two of the Rhapsodies (talented Khari Jones and marvelous B. Chico Purdiman), who function as the Greek chorus and speak as the two-pronged voice of one individual. It's a highly effective device — executed flawlessly — and provides some much-needed continuity for an otherwise confusing story line.
Because Bayeza has changed or adapted some names while retaining others, the audience is constantly in the position of trying to figure out who is who. And because she uses intermittent flashbacks as a way of filling in background, just following the basic narrative thread is a formidable challenge.
But in the moments of theatrical clarity, there's a gem of an idea here, struggling to free itself. Thetis (who is a sea nymph, after all) learns of the secret marriage of her beloved Jupe (Jones) — short for Jupiter, which (in another convolution) is Zeus' Roman name — at a pool party. The seeds of tragedy are sown immediately by setting the action in Wayne County, Mich., designated as “second only in corruption” to the fabled Cook County (Chicago), Ill. It's 1978, and the cream of the black leadership has been assassinated. Nevius, a practicing undertaker as well as a congressman, is facing a difficult re-election campaign and is none too happy about his daughter marrying an African from “an embargo state.” (I wasn't sure which country.)
The chronology cuts back and forth among the various guests as Bayeza tries to provide us with background and make a plausible case for Paris' appearance. In one of the more charming segments, she has Nevius comfort his jilted daughter with dinner at a Chinese restaurant owned and operated by a West Indian named Wong (Macon). The dreaded prophecy of bearing a son who will surpass his father comes to her via a fortune cookie.
Clinton Turner Davis' agile and lively direction provides what illumination it can, but Davis, too, seems overwhelmed by the sheer amount of plot material to be presented and digested. His staging shines when the story stops struggling to explain itself and the ensemble can create such unforgettable characters as the Immortal Enchanters (Jones, Macon, and Purdiman), a once-popular Motown singing group left behind when Detroit was abandoned for Hollywood, now impoverished and wasted on drugs. Or Paris (M. Kimtai Simpson), introduced as a street-wise kid with a basketball and a talent for breaking windows. Or Cora Dix (Marcie Henderson), aka the goddess Discord, who crashes the wedding in a fabulous midnight-blue velvet coat and black tulle hat, and who — besides sparking the proceedings with her comic attitude — can sing a mean Motown tune.
Which brings me to music (provided by L. Troy Dixon) and its presence in the production as a kind of guiding spirit. It wants to pervade everything, as music has pervaded the African-American experience for 400 years. But, again, because Bayeza has not been able to master the material, music becomes a shadow presence, a reminder of what the show might be: a hip-hop musical that truly elevates the urban decay of contemporary America to the realms of classical tragedy.
Homer G. & the Rhapsodies in the Fall of Detroit runs through March 10 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in S.F.; call 474-8800.