“black odyssey” a fresh take on an ancient tale

first_imgMarcus Gardley’s new drama “black odyssey” taps into a brand of intense storytelling that’s mystified audiences for millennia.It’s no surprise, really, considering the young playwright’s source material in putting together this story of a black soldier’s long and difficult homecoming after the Gulf War. The basic structure and concept of Gardley’s world premiere currently running through the Denver Center Theatre Company comes straight from “The Odyssey,” one of the Western world’s most durable stories. The concept is hardly new. “The Odyssey” has been the basis for too many tales to count in the past 3,000 years. But Gardley’s twist on the ancient story isn’t tired or hackneyed. Instead, the playwright and director Chay Yew draws on a timeless tale to tell a very modern story. Through poetic language, imaginative plot twists and impressive stagecraft, “black odyssey” delivers a compelling and contemporary take on the black experience in America.What’s most impressive is the mix of ancient and modern threads. Gardley uses Homer’s epic poem as his basic model here, but it’s hardly transparent. The travails of Ulysses Lincoln (Jason Bowen) follow the basic path of Homer’s ancient poem; his struggles stem from a conflict between two gods. Instead of Zeus and Poseidon, Deus (Cleavant Derricks) and Paw Sidin (Tony Todd) are the deities whose arguments lead to Ulysses Lincoln’s long journey to find his wife, Nella Pee (Shamika Cotton), and his son, Malachai (Eric Lockley), after the war.That fight among gods also has a root in Homer’s ancient tale. Here, it boils down to Ulysses’ murder of Paw Sidin’s son during the Gulf War. Instead of the one-eyed beast Cyclops, the victim is an Afghani with one eye who never deserved death. As a punishment for the murder, Ulysses is denied a straight path back to his family after the war. Instead, he undertakes a voyage that’s based more in abstraction than geography.It’s a sojourn through the self, and in the case of Ulysses Lincoln, that means revisiting some of the most seminal moments in black history. In reconnecting with his own ancestors, Lincoln reconnects with the tragic death of Emmett Till, the slaughter of four little girls in a church in Alabama and the assasination of Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. A revolving crew of actors including Kim Staunton, Eugene Fleming and Sequoiah play ancestral roles that stretch across generations and also find basic parallels in Homer’s original tale.As Ulysses wanders in his own history, the goddess Aunt Tina (a character with a parallel in the Greek goddess Athena played by Pressley), makes a home in the mortal world to keep Ulysses’ memory vibrant with Nella Pee. It’s a task that becomes all the more difficult as Malachai turns into a teenager and Paw Sidin arrives to tempt Nella Pee as John Suitor.The parallels to the ancient story sometimes feel stretched, and the narrative weave of the story can feel a bit scattered and unfocused. Even so, the power of the show is consistently impressive, thanks to amazing work from the company. Visiting actors Derricks and Todd, both of whom boast high-profile screen credits, are powerhouses in their multiple roles. Staunton, a DCTC vet, offers one of the show’s highlights in her portrayal of Circe, a siren devoted to keeping Ulysses from returning home.The tech in this show plays almost as an impressive role as the acting crew. Innovative projection work designed by Charlie Miller and Myung Hee Cho’s set design help clarify some of the drama’s more complicated premises.Those touches help the show remain rooted in the basic core story, a tale that’s entertained, mystified and educated since “The Odyssey” started making its rounds as a poem thousands of years ago. While “black odyssey” isn’t quite the most promising of the many world premieres in the DCTC’s 2013-14 season, it certainly does justice to its source material.THREE STARS OUT OF FOUR“black odyssey” runs until Feb. 16 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver. Tickets start at $47. Information: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *