The play “black odyssey” just completed a magnificent run at the Classic Stage Company (CSC; E. 13th Street in Manhattan). This play was the brainchild of Marcus Gardley and it was inspiring to watch. Gardley’s inspiration was Homer’s “The Odyssey” and the journey of Ulysses, but with that story based in Harlem and focused on a modern-day Black veteran—Ulysses Lincoln—trying to return to his family after the war in Afghanistan; a war he carries guilt for because of having to kill and in which he is used as a chess piece as two gods battle—Deus and Paw Sidin (God of the Sea).
Gardley started this production off with the all-Black cast inviting the audience to feel open to sing, dance, or do whatever the spirit moved them to do. The audience was told that we would all be part of the journey of Ulysses getting back home to his family in Harlem. This was a journey that would require him to get the help of the ancestors as well.
Throughout the play, there were so many references to the history and horrors Blacks in this country have faced and are still facing, including discrimination, hangings, killings, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Gardley boldly and creatively spoke of the Scottsboro Nine; the four little girls who died in the church bombing; and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. He said the names of so many—Trayvon Martin and others who were victims of hate and violence in this country. He also examined how a Black man can’t know himself if he does not know and embrace his ancestors and his history. How will you know where to go if you don’t know where you come from?
This storyline was filled with humor and some funky stuff, but also addressed what happened to Black people in New Orleans who were left on the roofs of their homes to perish after Hurricane Katrina. It showed a family where the father continued to believe that the government was coming to rescue them from the roof, even though they had been on it for 40 days.
This play truly gave an audience a lot to mull over. It took a classic tale and reimagined it in a way that the African American community can see itself be recognized, embraced, and emboldened.
The flow of the play was absolutely beautiful. The cast delivered phenomenal performances: James T. Alfred as Deus; Jimonn Cole as Paw Sidin; Sean Boyce Johnson as Ulysses; Harriett D. Foy as Aunt Tee; Temidayo Amay as Benevolence; Adrienne C. Moore as Alsendra Sabine; Lance Coadie Williams as Artez Sabine; D. Woods as Nella P. Lincoln, the wife of Ulysses; and Marcus Gladney Jr. as Malachai Lincoln, Ulysses’s son.
Some of this incredibly talented group of actors also played multiple roles. Live music was provided by percussionist Ayinde Webb. Stevie Walker-Webb truly connected all the elements of this production so you walked out feeling rejuvenated and refreshed.
In addition to the drama and comedic moments, this production also had some great singing performances. “black odyssey” succeeded in taking the audience, no matter their racial background, on a journey of substance and joy. If you hear it is being performed again, make sure you experience it.