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Ancient myth, modern-day Oakland meld in ‘black odyssey’

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Cal Shakes boasts an excellent ensemble — from left, Lamont Thompson, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Safiya Fredericks and Aldo Billingslea — in its West Coast premiere of Marcus Gardley’s “black odyssey.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

In Homer’s ancient epic “The Odyssey,” Ulysses sails slowly back to Greece at the end of the Trojan War.

Along the way he’s both waylaid and guided by the gods.

Meanwhile, his wife, Penelope, is besieged by suitors and his son is growing up fatherless.

In California Shakespeare Theater’s “black odyssey,” Oakland homeboy (and nationally acclaimed playwright) Marcus Gardley’s tragic, funny and deeply impassioned re-imagining of that iconic tale, Ulysses Lincoln (gravely and beautifully performed by J. Alphonse Nicholson, who also contributes some effective percussion) is an African-American struggling for 16 years to return to Oakland after fighting in Afghanistan.

The delay is partly because the manipulative gods Poseidon, renamed Paw Sidin (a hilarious Aldo Billingslea), and his brother, Deus (a calmly focused Lamont Thompson as the Zeus figure), are squabbling over his fate.

And partly because Ulysses himself is disconnected from his roots and beset by self-doubt (“I got blood on my hands,” he says).

Great Aunt Tina (aka Athena, played by the extraordinarily expressive Margo Hall) is meddling in Ulysses’ fate as well, in various mortal guises (Hall is especially heartbreaking as an old slave woman in an exquisite scene with Nicholson).

Adrift, Ulysses time-travels from the Middle East war to 1968 New Orleans (just after the murder of Martin Luther King), where he washes up on a rooftop during a biblical flood that presages the later Hurricane Katrina and where he tells his story to a little girl (a buoyant Safiya Fredericks).

In the hands of Gardley and equally brilliant California Shakes artistic director Eric Ting, Homer’s tale becomes a burnished handed-down story, recalling the griot tradition, in which the hero’s journey is about learning to value family and ancestry.

The play resonates on multiple levels, encompassing much of the history and culture of black America.

Among the show’s many riches is the music (Linda Tillery and Molly Holm, composer/directors): a sublime mix of African traditional songs, blues and spirituals sung a cappella by the gifted actors.

There’s also set designer Michael Locher’s towering, ancient-looking columns, among which, in one scene, a vintage Cadillac glides, commandeered by a “Superfly”-like supreme ancestor figure in shades and a bouffant Afro (Thompson again).

The uniformly excellent actors include Ulysses’ rebellious son, Malachai (Michael Curry) and his yearning wife (named Nella Pell, a witty anagram; she’s played by a powerful Omozé Idehenre); plus Michael Gene Sullivan and Dawn L. Troupe in multiple, finely tuned characterizations.

black odyssey
Presented by California Shakespeare Theatre
Where: Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes Sept. 3
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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