The Middle Passage and Jim Crow don’t make it into Homer’s epic poem, but they are very much a part of Marcus Gardley’s new play, which also covers Diana Ross, Super Fly, Hurricane Katrina and Trayvon Martin, as well as the best of “The Bachelorette: The Final Rose.”
“Black Odyssey” opened Sunday at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company.
In 2018, Gardley’s “The House That Will Not Stand, inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” was one of the best plays of the pre-pandemic theater in New York City. “Black Odyssey” is perhaps a little less inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey,” while being more tied to it than “House” is to Lorca. While the setting is Harlem, Gardley’s Ulysses Lincoln (Sean Boyce Johnson) fights and then wanders even more than Homer’s hero, his journey spanning centuries instead of a mere two decades. “Black Odyssey” is a hallucinatory crash course in Black history, and a lot more engaging than anything you ever sat through in school, that is, before a certain governor removed it from the curriculum.
At times, “Black Odyssey” more resembles John Leguizamo’s free-wheeling “Latin History for Morons” than anything written by Homer. In fact, Gardley’s play is most entertaining when you stop trying to match up his characters to the originals. The best of his creations is Aunt Tee (Harriett D. Foy), a long-lost relative of Ulysses Lincoln who quickly befriends and takes care of the soldier’s wife, Nella (D. Woods), and their teenage son, Malachai (Marcus Gladney Jr.). Foy, like most of the actors in this versatile ensemble, plays a variety of roles. Aunt Tee is the one you’re most likely never forget, although her Tina Turner is a close second. Gardley loads this character with the kind of wit, wisdom and moxie that can only come from having lived a few hundred years. Aunt Tee would be right at home in “The Skin of Our Teeth,” although Gardley is much better with the one-liners than Thornton Wilder.
Aunt Tee and Malachai attempt to prevent Nella from falling in love with another man while her husband is away and perhaps dead. Homer gave his Penelope 108 lechers to contend with; Gardley wisely reduces it to just one suitor (the incredibly seductive Jimonn Cole). A scene that begins in slapstick quickly develops all the lust, suspense and recrimination of great nighttime reality TV. In other words, the CSC audience at the performance I attended was reduced to the hysterics of Bachelor Nation at its most voyeuristic.
If this review makes “Black Odyssey” sound like an inspired “SNL” spoof, it is that. It’s also something more. And while Gardley is a master writer of comedy, he also knows when to keep it serious to explore his themes of persecution and injustice. He does subject his Ulysses to a pretty raucous encounter with the strip-teasing Alsendra Sabine (Adrienne C. Moore, pulling out all the stops and then some); otherwise, this hero remains true to the classic mold, and Johnson achieves the remarkable feat of being both naive and not a fool for two and a half hours on stage.
It’s a delicate balance that Steve Walker-Webb also achieves as a director. Earlier this season, he proved his talent for using burlesque to express the tragic with his staging of Jordan Cooper’s “Ain’t No ‘Mo.” He works similar theater magic with the equally fragmented and tone-shifting “Black Odyssey.”
Rounding out the talented cast here are Temidayo Amay, Lance Coadie Williams and James T. Alfred, who is as convincing playing James Brown as he is being Zeus or, as Gardley calls him, Deus.
At the movies, Gardley has written the screenplay for the musical “The Color Purple,” to be released later this year. We can only hope he does to Alice Walker what he does to Homer and Lorca.