Award-Winning Playwright Marcus Gardley Odysseys to Oakland
The Odyssey is literature’s ultimate homecoming story. For Marcus Gardley, it’s providing a literal homecoming.
Gardley, an Oakland-born, award-winning playwright, is making his California Shakespeare Theater debut this month with the West Coast premiere of Black Odyssey, a modern retelling of Homer’s epic poem in which an African American veteran returning from Afghanistan makes his way back to Oakland. (Earlier iterations of the production have taken place in Harlem, but the locale has been adjusted for an East Bay audience.) Gardley’s previous works, including The Box: A Black Comedy and The House That Will Not Stand (which premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2014), have drawn critical acclaim.
And unlike Homer’s protagonist, whom only the dog recognizes, Gardley can expect a hero’s welcome home. The play reflects all things Bay Area, from its music and cast to the examination of the African American experience, says Cal Shakes artistic director Eric Ting. “This represents the best of what Cal Shakes can do.”
Aug. 9–Sept. 3
Marvin X, Master poet/playwright, co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, Notes on Black Odyssey
photo Pendarvis Harshaw
Tonight we watched a preview performance of Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley at the Cal Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda. My daughter, Attorney Amira Jackmon, invited me to attend the outdoor performance with my grandchildren. Since I hadn't seen them for months because Amira has the El Muhajir spirit and is ever on the move throughout the universe, usually accompanied with her children, Naeemah and Jameel, I was elated to spend the evening with my peoples.
Ironically, when I showed them the latest issue of the Movement Newspaper, Naeemah asked, "Grandfather, when you gonna put me on the cover of your newspaper?" I replied, "Naeemah, you know I had the same thought tonight that I should put you and Jahmeel on the cover. I will do so soon." Actually, in the August issue, there are two poems in which my children and grandchildren are mentioned.
When my daughter asked me about Black Odyssey, I told her I didn't know the play but I suspected it was based on the Greek myth stolen from African mythology and reinterpreted through the lens of North American African mythology. Once the play began, I knew I was correct. It began with Ulysses beating the drum, then choral voices in an African language, evolving into the "Stolen Legacy" (George M. James, W.E.B. DuBois) Greek myth morphed into North American African personas and narrative based on situations in the hoods of the Bay, with references to the white hoods as well, e.g., Rockridge, Acorn, et al.
Because of the cold, I was only able to endure the first half. I forgot or didn't realize it's an outdoor theatre, so although Orinda is located immediate after one departs the tunnel from Berkeley, the weather changed drastically and I was totally unprepared, even though they gave out blankets, so I endured the first half then departed to wait in my daughter's car. My daughter said, "Dad, the tickets cost too much for us to leave now!" I told her I would no doubt come again, if only to review the play for my newspaper. She and her chillin' decided to endure the cold for another hour and twenty minutes. As per myself, I am suffering extreme attention deficit disorder these days, not that I have no suffered it throughout my life. After the play, my daughter reminded me, "Dad, do you know how long your productions usually are?" I said, "Ok, but I'm thinking my next concert will be one hour long. The first set of the recent Sun Ra Arkestra concert at the San Francisco Jazz Center lasted one hour, after which I departed, even though the Arkestra has been a part of my life since I performed with Sun Ra and his Arkestra off and on since 1968 in Harlem, NY. And as per time, Sun Ra and I performed a five hour concert of my musical Take Care of Business in San Francisco at the Harding Theatre on Divisadero, 1972, without intermission. Times change. As Sun Ra taught, "We are on the other side of time!"
But the first half revealed that we have an excellent writer in Marcus Gardley, who is from Oakland. There was no question of his masterful weaving of African, Greek and North American African mythology into a unified and organic whole, full of poetry and philosophy about manhood rites of passage and male/female relations. For example, when the 16 year old son of Ulysses, (J. Alphonse Nicholson), Malachai (Michael Curry) encounters his mother, Nella Pell (Omoze Idehenre), mom tells him if he wants to be a man as he proclaims, then buy his own shoes and clothes, pay his own rent. Finally, the 16 year old says, "Mom, I don't wanna be a man, " especially after she was ready to throw his X-box out the window.
I was astounded at the dexterity of the writer in so smoothly working the ancient Greek myth into North American African mythology and simultaneously incorporating African song, dance, music and mythology into his dramatic narrative. I proclaim him a genius of poetry and drama!
When Eldridge Cleaver observed my 1981 Laney College Theatre production of In the Name of Love, he said, "Marvin, you have returned drama to the poetic tradition of Shakespeare." Well, One Day in the Life was a poetic drama. Black Odyssey is the same. I only saw the first half, but my daughter and grandchildren said they enjoyed the second half as well. My daughter said the second half, especially when Ulysses returned home from his journey, was very powerful, very touching and emotional, when he embraced his faithful wife.
If you read my notes on the Sun Ra Arkestra concert at the San Francisco Jazz Center, I discuss the Black Arts Movement Theatre tradition of "Ritual Theatre", well, Black Odyssey utilized this concept of having the actors depart the stage into the audience, thus consciously or unconsciously placing themselves in the Black Arts Movement Theatrical tradition, which connects us with aboriginal myth-ritual theatre. I plan to go back to see the second half of this wonderful play and production.
I will go prepared for the cold night air in Orinda. If you North American Africans can travel to the Concord Pavilion for Snoop Dog, you can endure the cold night air of the Cal Shakespeare Theatre to see Black Odyssey.
Don't miss it cause brother Marcus talkin bout your myth-ritual reality right here in the Bay, let alone all the references to North American African history and mythology, including icons of Black liberation, i.e., Medgar, Malcolm, Martin, Emmit Till, down to Black Lives Matter, police killings, black on black homicide, yes, the Black Odyssey continues to the other side of time, as Sun Ra taught!
"I do not come to 14th and Broadway to make money by selling books. Sometimes, I think I do but Allah soon reveals to me my mission has nothing to do with money although the people provide me with more money that I expect. Sometimes people drop $20.00 and $10.00 dollars in the glass pot and keep going.
But if you want to know the beauty of our people, when I give books on credit, I never keep record, yet 99% of them pay me when they can, without fail, this is the beauty of our people you need to know. As per the youth who come by with pants hanging off their asses, if I say, "Pull yo pants up," 99% do so without hesitation, only one percent replay with negative bullshilt like, "You ain't my daddy, you can't tell me what the fuck to do!" Sometimes they walk by and read my thoughts: when they get to the curb they pull their pants up without me saying anything, then turn around and look at me with a smile, then continue across the street. They can read minds as we all can. This is the beauty of our people, even our children that you fear to talk with, say a kind word with, give a word of wisdom to while they are starving for elder knowledge.
When I go to the barber shop operated by youngsters, they turn to me and say, "OG, teach us, teach us O.G. Tell us some wisdom, O.G. O.G., when you were a youngster, when you got an STD, you took a pill and stopped your drip. These days, if we get an STD, we might die!"
So let us celebrate Black Odyssey by our brother Marcus. He has much to teach us as per manhood rites of passage and manhood/womanhood relations. Dress fada cold and get yo black asses to Orinda for a myth-ritual healing!
--Marvin X, Black Arts Movement Theatre Elder