black odyssey boston

April 30, 2019

in Plays

Play (2019)
by Marcus Gardley

Directed by Benny Sato Ambush

The Front Porch Arts Collective
Underground Railway Theater
Central Square Theater
Central Square, Cambridge, MA
April 25 – May 19, 2019

With Ramona Lisa Alexander, Elle Borders, Johnny Lee Davenport, Journey-Ade King, Hubens “Bobby” Cius, Regie Gibson, Brandon G. Green, Akili Jamal James, Carolyn Saxon, Kai Thomani Tshikosi

Johnny Lee Davenport as Great Grand Daddy Deus, Regie Gibson as Great Grand Paw Sidin in 'black odyssey boston'

Johnny Lee Davenport as Great Grand Daddy Deus
Regie Gibson as Great Grand Paw Sidin
in “black odyssey boston”
Photo: Maggie Hall
Courtesy of Central Square Theater

A robustly moving and exquisitely conceived and directed evocation of African-American experience with a particular tilt towards Boston, told through the mythic lens of Homer’s Odyssey.

I’m inclined to call this wonderful amalgamation of drama, dance, humor, music and poetry monumental, but it is also so funny, intimate and immediate that it has a more personal connotation than that. This majestic theater piece, performed by an Afro-American cast, in many ways distills the themes of return and re-ennoblement for the African-American experience in the way that Joyce’s Ulysses did for Ireland (and its Irish-Jewish protagonist, Leopold Bloom) a century ago.

A playful interaction enacted on an elevated platform between the Zeus character, Great Grand Daddy Deus (Johnny Lee Davenport), and the Poseidon one, Paw Sidin (Regie Gibson), features the two divinities playing a chess game with fate. Deus wants to help bring the Odysseus character, Ulysses Lincoln, home to his wife, the Penelope character Nella Pell (Elle Borders), and son, the Telemachus character Malachi (Hubens “Bobby” Cius), while Paw Sidin wants to make eternal trouble for the long-traveling veteran of the wars.

The result is an exuberant, sometimes troubling, always challenging journey in which Ulysses overcomes attempted seductions by Circe (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and Calypso (Carolyn Saxon), among others, to make his way home.

There are endless numbers of fabulous soliloquies in this play, written with a rap-like poetic gesture but not tied to the particular form of rap. The result is a verbal waterfall, filled with funny, complex, sometimes silly (and many Boston-local) references that entertain and inspire a sense of a long journey towards significance and a local landscape replete with its emblems.

The Boston-centric emphasis is, like Joyce’s Ulysses vis-à-vis Dublin, an entirely appropriate vehicle for understanding and paying homage to home and place. What seems, on the surface, like just a bunch of familiar geographic references becomes, in the context of this story about return, the filling out of a detailed illustration of what it means to belong.

In this sense, this production is indeed monumental. Beginning with a truly beautifully enacted African-style dance and choral setting, the action travels towards America and the trials and tribulations of African-American culture as it faces slavery, disenfranchisement, dislocation, and fragmentation on its way to revitalization and re-cohesion.

The final moments of the play, in which Ulysses does return to his family, and which evokes the sense of the family broken by circumstance and the re-entry of the long-distant husband and father into this family fold, is wonderfully moving. It resounds with deep echoes of the longed-for return to the kind of and pastoral settledness and domestic unity invoked with African themes at the beginning of the play, recast on new shores.

Though this is not a musical in the traditional sense, there is much wonderful singing and dancing in this production, beautifully integrated with action.

Director Benny Sato Ambush has done a fabulous job of staging this complex web of characters and actions into a coherent whole, but, through that stagecraft, calling forth the deep sense of cultural and personal homecoming that is at its core.

This show runs almost three hours, but it is full of diversions and entertainments that make it move along. Though it might be trimmed a bit here and there, the richness of its cultural and interpersonal landscapes provides the many dividends of this time investment.

Hilarity, with funny, really out-there, sequences like an extended takeoff on African-American popular music stars, mixes with sober references such as to murdered African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in rapid succession, but it never seems inappropriate. Rolled together it conveys a sense of the amalgam of challenges and influences that have created the African-American experience.

This is not only an entertaining and beautifully written and produced show, it is an important one: a wonderfully envisioned evocation of a return to wholeness and nobility in family, place and self.

Not to be missed.

– BADMan

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