By Sarah Downs
black odyssey at the Classic Stage is a brilliant voyage into a world of myth and mystery. In this retelling of the epic poem The Odyssey, transported to Harlem from ancient Greece, playwright Marcus Gardley condenses and transforms a hugely convoluted narrative into a modern tale that echoes with generations of history. The play traffics in layered dualities, expressed in rich, beguiling text that is both grandiose and achingly human.
Odysseus, referred to in this play by his Latin name Ulysses, has been gone to soldier for nearly 20 years and feared dead. However, Ulysses is not dead, but lost. He has been wandering for years on an arduous journey home, facing innumerable obstacles, both material and divine, including a scandalous siren Adrienne C. Moore, who nearly succeeds in pulling Ulyses off course, storm-tossed oceans, and even a trio of sea creatures in the form of sequin clad 1970’s pop icons, in an hilarious, glittery funk song and dance fantasy.
Looming over the action, the Gods Paw Sidin (Jimonn Cole ) and Deus (James T. Alfred) drive the action, in a game of chess writ large, with humans as pawns. Sparks fly between the two divinities, as Paw Sidin seeks revenge for the death of his son, whom Ulysses had shot for reasons unclear, and Deus tries to protect Ulysses. Cole as the vengeful Paw Sidin, is chilling. This is a man who could bend you to his will with his eyes alone. Alfred has a dignified presence and commanding voice as Deus.
Harriett D. Foy, with her chiseled cheekbones and innate elegance cuts a striking figure as Ulysses’ mother the goddess Athena and her delightful, prima donna human incarnation Aunt Tee. Tee is all that, and she knows it. She has come down from Olympus to help Ulysses’ wife Nella (D. Woods) and son Malachi (Marcus Gladney Jr.). Life has been grim and lonely for them, living in a poor neighborhood of Harlem. Dreams – of Ulysses’ eventual return, and of a brighter future for her talented son, are what have kept Nella on her feet, but only just. Woods is funny and fierce as the protecive mother As Malachi, Gladney brims with youthful energy, innocence and wisdom beyond his years. He also possesses a hauntingly beautiful singing voice.
As a young girl Benevolence, accompanying Ulysses (Sean Boyce Johnson) on part of his sea voyage, Tẹmídayọ Amay is a quiet yet arresting presence. Amay is special. For his part Johnson as Ulysses easily carries the weight of his central character, with the dual obligation as a man battered by Olympic forces and interlocutor between stage and audience. Johnson is sympathetic, human and dignified. And in a star turn Lance Coadie Williams, matches his gift for physical comedy with a powerful depth of characterization as the mysterious, shadowlike figure The Alter Ego, speaking in a gorgeous resonant voice almost like an Oracle. He is a reflection, an historical artifact, an archetype and a beating, human heart.
Director Stevie Walker-Webb guides the action with a determined assurance that cuts through the dense tangle of language and plot, utilizing both strong stage pictures and intimate portraits, supported by Adam Honoré’s rich lighting. Kindall Almond’s intuitive, detailed costumes speak for themselves. Almond has plucked ideas and forms from every century, creating a rich assemblage of color and shape.
At 2 ½ hours with one 15 minute intermission, the play is a bit exhausting. Setting up the story is a heavy lift, as so much convoluted exposition needs to be gotten through in order to establish the context. With such dense (wonderful) writing and crowded storyline, this might be … an opera! (hint, hint). It would be brilliant. black odyssesy is theater you can really sink your teeth into — dramatic, imaginative and detailed. It takes a little patience, but once we hit our stride the storm tossed seas, and vivid nightmares are smooth sailing.