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)

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)

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

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.

REVIEW
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.orgAldo Billingsleablack odysseyCalifornia Shakespeare TheatreDawn L. TroupeEric TingJ. Alphonse NicholsonLamont ThompsonLinda TilleryMarcus GardleyMargo HallMichael CurryMichael Gene SullivanMichael LocherMolly HolmOmozé IdehenreSafiya FredericksTheater

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Howard Golden places an order with server Dragos Pintlie at John’s Grill as indoor dining resumes on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Food services industry sees significant drop in employment opportunities

San Francisco’s job market has contracted sharply over the past year in… Continue reading

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, on Monday said “We truly wish we could return to in-person learning for everyone.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFUSD reopening plans still leave out most secondary students

SFUSD announces April return to in-person learning after reaching contract deal with teachers

San Francisco Giants catcher Joey Bart (21) swings for a strike against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Oracle Park on August 25, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner).
Up-and-coming players show glimpses of future greatness at Giants Spring Training

By Nick Zeller-Singh Thousands of baseball players across the nation have one… Continue reading

“Calder-Picasso” juxtaposes sculptures and paintings by 20th century masters Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso at the de Young Museum. (Courtesy Gary Sexton/2021 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York)
‘Calder-Picasso’ showcases modern masters side-by-side

Artists explore empty space in representational and abstract works

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to The City's streets including Slow Streets closures to increase open space access and the Shared Spaces program, which allows businesses to use public right-of-ways for dining, retail and services. (Examiner illustration)
COVID is reshaping the streets of San Francisco

Walk down Page Street, which is closed to thru-traffic, and you might… Continue reading

Most Read