‘Black Odyssey Channels Emmett Till, Hurricane Katrina…and Homer

The California Shakespeare Theater’s West Coast premiere of Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey is a cause for double celebration: one, for the company’s commitment to a Shakespearian tradition that I wish were a vital part of contemporary American theater and isn’t; and, two, for bringing to full life Gardley’s rather astonishing play, which has the scope, breadth, and vision of Shakespeare’s late romances -- The Winter’s TaleCymbeline, and Pericles.

The play's power derives principally from the fact that Gardley creates a world of high stakes. And as recent events keep on proving, there is no higher stake than being black in America. Without a hint of didacticism, the play lets us see what is both the principal story of our country, and, strangely, the one we keep on missing.

Paying an obvious debt to Homer, Black Odyssey begins with Ulysses Lincoln (a subtle and assured J. Alphonse Nicholson) drumming on those plastic paint buckets of which BART buskers are so fond. Before we know it, Lincoln is swept off the deck of a ship transporting American soldiers from Afghanistan, the victim of the god Paw Sidin’s wrath for killing one of his many sons. Gardley’s ability to write with a swiftness of purpose and focus is striking. Scenes go by with lightning speed, and yet even his most minor characters are vivid and alive, including the gods.

As Lincoln struggles to stay alive, his wife Nella Pell -- two months pregnant when he leaves for a six-month tour of duty -- waits. Even when informed of Lincoln’s disappearance and obvious death, she refuses to lose faith in her husband's eventual return. Nella Pell will wait many years, struggling to raise their son Malachai with help from Lincoln’s Aunt Tina, who's really the goddess Athena in disguise, risking her life and good looks to live among mortals.

Lincoln’s journey, which follows Odysseus’ so thoroughly, differs from its source in one striking aspect: Odysseus is a product of the elite, a general and head of state, struggling to regain his rightful return to power. Lincoln, along with his beloved Nella Pell, is an orphan and outcaste whose life is an afterthought to the dramas of the state. One might say that before Lincoln even begins his journey he is lost, both to himself and the world around him. And that for him to be saved and return, he must right the myth that he's living.

For all the pagan gods running around Black Odyssey, the play is suffused with a stringent and embracing vision of Christian redemption. We will be brought back to a loving god and a world of sense when we give ourselves to the truth and our sins. Lincoln is an epic hero, and a victim of all sorts of situations beyond his control. But, more powerfully, he is flawed and capable of great cruelty. He is not an abstraction, but rather a man. And in that insight, Gardley’s drama always soars.

When Lincoln finds himself lost in an underworld of African-American history unmoored from time -- a place where Emmett Till still whistles, Hurricane Katrina never stops flooding New Orleans, the blood of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X hasn't dried, the Scottsboro boys sit and wait for justice, and the four little girls slaughtered in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing sleep in peace -- it is the practical need to make sense of disorder that propels him forward, along with the simple desire that he must return to his family at all costs.

The nature of that order is personal, political, and right down to the way the characters speak. After all, language is essential to making sense and locating an authentic self. For a multitude of political reasons, black English is often treated as a derivation of a white standard, but that misses the diversity of black speech itself. In Black Odyssey you hear all the tenors and rhythms of what one might describe as the polyglot nature of black life in America. Not a derivation, but instead a stunning array of related languages that even African-Americans must at times struggle to navigate.

And so strewn throughout Black Odyssey, Gardley gives us several languages: those of the church and street, outrage and moral instruction, and finally a language of dreams that imagines a way out of the long nightmare of racial injustice. They all have different qualities and registers and are sometimes in opposition to each other. But it’s Lincoln’s ability to keep all of these languages going at once that finally frees him to rejoin his family and the world.

Gardley’s play is a highly unusual triumph. Buoyed by Eric Ting’s sharp, resourceful direction, an amazing cast, and fluid design work, it’s clear that Cal Shakes has found the Shakespearian spirit in our troubling times.

California Shakespeare Theater's 'Black Odyssey' runs through September 3 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information, see here.