Photo: Kevin Berne, Cal Shakes
Students of Homer will recognize in “Black Odyssey” the broad outlines of the Greek epic. Like its inspiration, Marcus Gardley’s play centers on a hero’s years-long journey home from war, during which, as a pawn of capricious and vengeful gods, he battles tempests and temptresses, his dutifully waiting and hoping wife always on his mind.
But the voyage in this West Coast premiere, at California Shakespeare Theater under the direction of Eric Ting, is only partly about physical distance. Ulysses (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is trying to return to his wife Nella (Omozé Idehenre) and son Malachai (Michael Curry) in Oakland after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But his real problem is that he doesn’t think he’s worthy of going home, both because of what he did as a soldier and because as a black American man who doesn’t know his ancestors, he doesn’t know who he is.
The genius of Gardley’s script is that it reappropriates a foundational text of the Western canon — a literature oft used to justify the elevation of one civilization and the enslavement of others — as a means for Ulysses to tap into his own and his race’s history, to build consciousness and identity and worth. That project felt all the more urgent at the show’s Saturday, Aug. 12, opening night, with the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., just hours before.
Squabbling mostly good-naturedly amongst themselves, Gods Deus (Lamont Thompson), Great Grand Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea, in a too-rare silly role for an actor usually cast as statelier characters) and Great Aunt Tina (Margo Hall) obsess over his doings, meting out punishments, then disguising themselves as mortals to unveil escape routes, only to send yet another obstacle for him to overcome.
Yet whether an individual deity is out to get him or save him isn’t the point; “Black Odyssey” exalts a seemingly forgotten black man, asserting that his and his wife’s apartment in the Acorn Projects is as important, as magical, as touched by the gods, as the “bougie” Oakland hills, the play’s Mount Olympus and the Bruns Amphitheater’s stunning natural backdrop. (Gardley is an Oakland native, and the show’s East Bay shout-outs, from “the chilly fridge called Rockridge” all the way to Scott’s Seafood in Jack London Square, are like candy.)
At first, mentions of historical signposts like Emmett Till and Black Lives Matter, the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration all fly by so quickly and chaotically that nothing gets a chance to land; it feels like the play is trying to bid for topicality and significance just by naming names. It never gets a chance to feel didactic, though, since Gardley’s gleeful wordplay, a cascade of rhymes and double entendres, always moves at a caper or a trot — or a second line parade, led by Michael Gene Sullivan with an olympiad’s (or an Olympian’s) high steps.
And the effect of all those references is cumulative, Ulysses’ ever-expanding history eventually taking corporeal form to ferry him home. A showstopping second-act scene with a Cadillac convertible makes this point most forcefully, as Thompson, now as “Superfly Tireseas” in a towering afro and a shirt that seems to be made of liquid gold (Dede M. Ayite did the regal costumes), exudes so much effortless cool that you’ll likely forever think of his native jive as the idiom of the gods.
Music fuels much of Ulysses’ journey, from Nicholson’s own galvanizing drumming to original vocal compositions by Linda Tillery and Molly Holm. In a variety of ensemble roles, Dawn L. Troupe’s singing is so piercingly on pitch that the whole world, including the creatures and bugs who call the Bruns home, seems to be in sync with her. Finally singing himself in the show’s closing number, Nicholson has the range of classically trained woodwind player, percussing out breaths in a way that makes you remember that the human voice is truly a windpipe.
Nicholson sings here because it’s only now that Ulysses can. He’ll need that as a tool, going forward. One journey might be over, but the gods aren’t done with him yet.
Black Odyssey: Written by Marcus Gardley. Directed by Eric Ting. Two hours, 30 minutes. Through Sept. 3. $20-$72, subject to change. California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. (510) 548-9666. www.calshakes.org
To read an interview with Eric Ting: www.sfchronicle.com/performance/article/Eric-Ting-to-keep-pushing-at-Cal-Shakes-11727858.php