The Long Journey Home

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(l to r) Lamont Thompson as Great Grand Daddy Deus plays chess with Aldo Billingslea as Great Grand Paw Sidin, while Dawn L. Troupe, Omozé Idehenre, and Safiya Fredericks look on in Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater; photo by Kevin Berne

I read The Odyssey in 7th or 8th grade English class. Poor Ulysses spends 20 years roaming the world, fighting sirens, storms and one-eyed monsters while trying to get home to his wife who is struggling to fend off suitors and maintain her chastity while keeping the flames of hope alive that he will return.  Eventually he returns and everyone lives happily ever after.  Or at least that’s what I remember.

Now a brilliant young Oakland playwright, Marcus Gardley, has used those same plot lines and overlaid a story of the black experience in America, devising a combination that produces a stunning work of art, Black Odyssey.  We saw it Sunday at Cal Shakes in Orinda, and you should, too.

This is a masterful production, directed by Eric Ting, that blends the structure of a Greek tragedy with modern day racial politics. Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a US soldier washed overboard on the trip home from Afghanistan, considered dead by the Army but not by Nella Pell (Omozé Idehenre), his eternally faithful wife and the mother of his child, Malachai (Michael Curry).   His path is strewn with obstacles by Great Grandpaw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea) who is holding a grudge because Ulysses killed his son in Afghanistan. Ulysses is protected by Great Grand Daddy Deus (Lamont Thompson), so Great Grandpaw is going after the son Ulysses has never seen, Malachai.

The journey is more important then the destination, as Ulysses faces difficulties and decisions that mirror the black diaspora in America.  I think I’ll stop trying to describe the plot, and concentrate on meanings.

We think we live in a post-racial, non-segregated society, but look around the next time you have dinner out.  How many non-white faces do you see?  I have often wondered if the fine restaurants of the Bay Area had “Whites (and Asians) Only” signs that I just can’t see.  The events in Charlottesville 10 days ago show the deep racism still existing in much of the country, and the acceptance of it that reaches all the way to the White House.

The author, Marcus Gardley,  was born and raised in Oakland, and loves the city.  This play is set in the Acorn projects, with so many local references Gail and I both wondered if there was any way the play could ever travel to New York.  Gardley is a poet as well, and the rhythm and word play of the dialogue is brilliant.

Black Odyssey doesn’t promise or provide answers to these problems, it exists to shine a light on life and love and black and white and the meaning of existence.  You have to provide your own answers.

The play runs for 2 more weeks, and I sure hope you go see it.  This is what good theater is supposed to be.

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