With its earthy pillars set against the backdrop of Orinda’s beige, rolling hills, California Shakespeare Theater’s “black odyssey” plunged the audience deep within protagonist Ulysses Lincoln’s hopeful daydreams and torturous nightmares. The curvature and depth of Bruns Amphitheater helped this performance become an incredibly immersive experience.
Written by Marcus Gardley and directed by Eric Ting, “black odyssey” is a modern twist on the epic poem by Homer that features an all-Black cast. Based in 2001 Oakland, the play follows an American soldier, Ulysses Lincoln (J.D. Mollison), and his journey to not only return to his family but also to discover his family’s deep history.
The framing of this narrative is multitiered. The play starts off with a comedic chess match between brothers Great Grand PawSidin (Aldo Billingslea), the god of the seas, and Great Grand Daddy Deus (Cleavant Derricks), the king of heaven. This chess match accurately represents the classical gods’ tendency to interfere in the lives of mortals. Great Aunt Tina (Margo Hall), the goddess of wisdom, discusses the issue that sparked the conflict between these two characters: Ulysses had killed PawSidin’s son in battle.
Ulysses elaborates on the struggles he had to face because of PawSidin’s wrath through a series of anecdotes used to keep Benevolence Nausicca Sabine (Safiya Fredericks) entertained. The multilayered method of storytelling kept the play dynamic and complex without straying far from its intent. The bridging of these strangers’ stories ultimately makes them realize that they were never really strangers at all. The re-evaluation of the term “family” set forth in this play encouraged the audience members to broaden their scope of empathy.
The use of music in this play was exceptionally curated. Drummer Ruthie Price, who provided the background beats, was the hidden gem of this production. Her rhythmic precision was the solid basis for most of the musical aspects of the show. In the opening act, the characters entered from various locations of the stage and together they hummed a traditional African melody that reflected their roots. On the other hand, the dialogue between the characters read like pure poetry. Through the synthesis of impeccable cadence and rhyme, the script almost resembled a rap cypher, paying homage to the American origins of hip-hop music.
The cultural significance of music is further explored in the hilarious scene when Ulysses meets Superfly Tiresias (Derricks) driving a Cadillac. The appearances of artists such as Diana Ross (Velina Brown) and Tina Turner (Hall) serve to anchor this play in the passion and exuberance of Black soul music.
The two raised platforms on the stage were surprisingly versatile in set transformation. During the hilarious feast scene, Circe (Brown) and Ulysses are seated at opposite ends of the platforms, which are bridged together by staggered candles and plates of food all held by other characters. In another scene, the platforms are utilized as two separate locations, where both Ulysses and his son Malachai (Michael Curry) are confronted by cops simultaneously. The stage remained aesthetically minimalist but the creativity laced within its simplicity demonstrated the director’s mastery in design.
After the intermission, Ulysses delivered an impactful monologue on the history of Black people in the United States. He paid respects to his ancestors who were violently removed from their homes and forced to work on plantations. He also displayed his fury over the fact that, despite all that Black people have suffered for the sake of this country, they still have to remind others that Black lives matter. By breaking the fourth wall and bringing up politically and socially relevant questions, this beautifully written monologue pleaded that the audience be as woke as Ulysses.
From heart to humor, there was not a single aspect of performance that “black odyssey” did not excel at. It is a satisfying tale of finding self-identity, learning to embrace history and painting a brighter future. “Black odyssey” is a brilliant blend of modernity and classical storytelling that delivers an unforgettable message.