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black odyssey

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 26, 2023

Adrienne C. Moore, Lance Coadie Williams,
Tẹmídayọ Amay, and Sean Boyce Johnson

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
There is something magical happening on East 13th Street in Manhattan. Marcus Gardley's black odyssey, now playing at Classic Stage Company, is an adaptation of Homer's epic poem, but audiences familiar with The Odyssey from high school or college English classes will marvel at the show's freshness, immediacy, and wondrous inventiveness. The production is the perfect fusion of expert storytelling, imaginative stage craft, and thrilling performances, and it is well worth the trek to the East Village.

Classic Greek tragedy and poetry integrated mythology, history, and contemporary politics, reflecting the interrelationship of the spiritual, ancestral, and social spheres. Gardley's version accomplishes a similar amalgamation, and the show seamlessly integrates Black music (Ayinde Webb provides the onstage percussion accompaniment under Linda Tillery's musical direction), historical pageantry, and interactive (but in a good way) melodramatics. Stevie Walker-Webb's vigorous direction and Aquila Kikora Franklin's resourceful choreography make all of the disparate and sumptuous elements seem miraculously organic.

Homer's original narrative features a supreme battle of wills as Zeus and Poseidon make Odysseus their pawn in his decade-long return to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. The grey-eyed goddess Athena intervenes and shows mercy on the poor mortals.

In Gardley's retelling, the warring, chess-playing gods are Deus (James T. Alfred) and Paw Siden (Jimonn Cole). Ulysses Lincoln (Sean Boyce Johnson) is thought to be killed in Afghanistan, but his wife Nella P. (D. Woods) refuses to believe it without seeing her husband's body, and she resists remarrying. Their son Malachai (Marcus Gladney Jr.) is a troubled teen, and as a young Black man, he confronts cyclopean systemic oppression and violence. The disguised goddess, Aunt Tee (Harriet D. Foy), serves as an ameliorating presence in the familial battles between the mother and son.

Ulysses's odyssey back home to Harlem includes encounters with legendary, mythic, and pop-cultural figures from Black heritage who perform variations on Homer's Tiresias, Circe, Calypso, and Charybdis, to name just a few. He also receives help from a Second Line grand marshal Artez Sabine (Lance Coadie Williams), his wife Alsendra (Adrienne C. Moore), and their daughter Benevolence (Tẹmídayọ Amay). The family is stranded on a rooftop in the middle of the New Orleans flood when Ulysses encounters them.

The cast works magnificently as an ensemble, and they are equally impressive individually. The protean performers, for instance, move effortlessly through camp send-ups of Supremes-style Sirens (a group featuring Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and James Brown), scenes of domestic turmoil, and Black-on-Black police brutality.

David Goldstein's set design includes a glass platform stage that suggests a cross between the cosmos and a shimmering water world. A cleverly disassembling dinghy exquisitely conveys the constantly shifting locales. Complementarily, Adam Honoré's lighting design beautifully captures the distinctions between the mortal and spiritual worlds. Special kudos must extend to Kindall Almond, whose costumes are alternately ceremonial, naturalistic, and over-the-top glitzy.

There has been a great deal of attention lately about Black culture and history in the high school curriculum. Based on the fervent responses from the audience with whom I attended, if I were still a high school English teacher, I would recommend black odyssey as required viewing. It is a show that is simultaneously enjoyable and edifying, and I predict even a Ron DeSantis would be unable to resist the charms of Gardley's siren song.

black odyssey
Through March 26, 2023
Classic Stage Company
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E 13th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: