Marcus Gardley was born and raised in Oakland, and several of his award-winning plays have been set in the Bay Area. But with his latest work, “… And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi,” the playwright takes audiences on an epic journey to the Deep South during the Civil War.
Gardley drew on Greek mythology, African-American folklore and elements of his own family history for the play, which opens this week at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco. Directed by Amy Mueller, the production runs through April 11.
Gardley, who studied theater at San Francisco State University and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, got the idea for the play while reading history and Greek myth.
“I started wondering what a modern myth would look like,” he says. “I wanted to fuse characters from Greek myth with characters from my own family.”
The central character is based on a story Gardley’s grandmother often recounted while he was growing up. Her father — Gardley’s great-grandfather — was a former slave who had given his daughter to another family to raise during the Civil War.
“He regretted that choice,” says Gardley, “and when the war ended, he went searching for her, because the family had moved.”
For Gardley, the story recalled the Greek myth of Demeter, who went in search of her missing daughter, Persephone.
He began writing a mythical story of a freed slave searching for her daughter after the Civil War. Like Demeter, the character contends with the whims of gods and goddesses, but Gardley’s version makes them distinctly American icons.
History is a constant theme in Gardley’s work.
Two of his plays deal with Bay Area history: “This World in a Woman’s Hands” — about Rosie the Riveter — was set in Richmond during World War II, and “Love is a Dream House in Lorin” was a history of South Berkeley. Both have been staged by the Shotgun Players. In July, his play “On the Levee” will premiere at Lincoln Center in New York.
Gardley, who lives in New York and teaches playwriting and African-American studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will return to Bay Area subjects: He has plans for plays set in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose.
“I still consider myself a Bay Area playwright,” he says.
This month, though, he hopes “Jesus Moonwalks” gives audiences a new view of the Civil War. “The history has always been a little one-sided,” he says. “My big desire is that we experience it from the slave’s perspective.”
“That’s what’s beautiful about art,” he continues. “It allows you to revisit history and add to the conversation without saying, ‘You’re right’ or ‘You’re wrong.’”
IF YOU GO
… And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: EXIT Theater, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 11
Tickets: $15 to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006; www.cuttingball.com