PROVIDENCE — There are so many things to say about Marcus Gardley’s extraordinarily rich play “black odyssey,” now onstage at Trinity Rep, but the first thing to say is this: Do not miss the opportunity to see this play.
Not only is this a chance to see a play by one of the nation’s most talented playwrights, but ‘black odyssey’ — which is brimming with symbolism and powerful performances — will move you, make you laugh, make you sing and clap along with the cast and the rest of the audience and it will make you think. Make you think about myths and storytelling and history and gods and goddesses and about the experience of growing up black in America.
With Homer’s “Odyssey” serving as the underpinning, “black odyssey” takes the audience on a wild, whirlwind of a journey that weaves ancient myths with American history and contemporary angst. On the way we’re treated to wonderful singing (well done, Michael Évora!) and dancing (bravo, Yontande Whitney V. Hunter) and colorful costumes you won’t soon forget (take a bow Kara Harmon).
Although Gardley’s play centers around Ulysses Lincoln (Joe Wilson Jr. is perfect in this role) and his long journey home, we also meet Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, the Birmingham school girls and the Scottsboro boys on the way, and hear about the Black Lives Matter movement, Hurricane Katrina and the New Orlean floods on that journey. Oh yes, the floods — and the waters and the rains. Lest you forget that water is central to this story, you will be reminded by the water that pours down from the heavens above at various points during the play.
Essentially a story about love and family, redemption, homecoming, healing and hope, “black odyssey” begins with the two pillars of the play: the gods Deus and Paw Sidin (Say his name a few time out loud.) The two gods sit high above the stage, one on each side, and are in the midst of an elaborate chess game. A chess game with people as the pieces.
Trinity resident acting company member Jude Sandy, who also co-directs the play with fellow company member Joe Wilson Jr., plays Deus regally and brings a confidence to the role. Omar Robinson is monumental as Paw Sidin. Striking.
Ulysses Lincoln, we soon learn, has been swept off the deck of a ship carrying him and other American soldiers home from Afghanistan. He survives and for the next 16 years struggles to make his way home. For killing one of Paw Sidin’s sons, however, he has become the victim of the god’s wrath. Paw Sidin wants Ulysses dead. As Ulysses struggles to stay alive, his pregnant wife Nella Pell (Kalyne Coleman gives a good, solid performance) waits for his return. Even when she’s told that Ulysses fell off the boat and disappeared, she hangs on to her faith and believes that her husband will one day come back to her. Nella Pell will wait many years, struggling to raise their son Malachai (Kai Tshikosi is excellent) with help from Ulysses’ Aunt Tina (Broadway veteran Julia Lema rules in this role), who’s really the goddess Athena in disguise and risks her life to live among the mortals and save her nephew.
Along his way home, Ulysses Lincoln meets the Abines; Alsendra (Cloteal L. Horne, a student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Acting program, also plays the roles of Circe Nzinga and Carib’diss and is excellent) and Artez Abine (Anwar Ali, another student in the Brown/Trinity program also plays a number of roles, including Alabama Slim, The Soul Siren, The Alter Ego and Police Officer 2, and wears some exquisite suits, and is also excellent).
Jackie Davis, in the role of their daughter, Benevolence, is sensational. The little girl accompanies Ulysses on the final part of his journey back home, where she shares some surprising news. I couldn’t take my eyes off Davis, what with her little white gloves, white ankle socks and white taffeta dress. Her facial expressions alone would have stolen the show, but as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of stellar performances in this unforgettable show.
“black odyssey” is riveting, complicated and powerful. It’s also very funny, very emotional, with splendid music, dancing, drumming, an interesting set and gorgeous, gorgeous costumes. It is so rich and multi-layered, you’ll be talking about it long after you leave the theater. It begs conversation and analysis (I’m still thinking about the gigantic white Lincoln Memorial), which I suppose is Gardley’s genius. He knows how to keep a story alive.