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Published August 23rd, 2017
'Black Odyssey' at CalShakes a formidable adventure
From left: Aldo Billingslea (Great Grand Paw Sidin), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses Lincoln), Safiya Fredericks (Benevolence Nausicca Sabine), Dawn S. Troupe (Alsendra Sabine) and Lamont Thompson (Great Grand Daddy Deus) in Marcus Gardley's "Black Odyssey," directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater. Photo Kevin Berne

CalShakes artistic director Eric Ting took a risk for the third play of the season in the beautiful theater in the hills, the Bruns Amphitheater: producing a text that had been performed only once before, "Black Odyssey," by contemporary playwright Marcus Gardley.
The risk was well worth it. "Black Odyssey" is powerful and adventurous, like the Greek myth it is named after. Homer's "Odyssey" captured the spirit of the ancient Greeks; "Black Odyssey" synthesizes much of the essence of the contemporary black experience in America, and of veterans hurt by the tragedy of war. "Black Odyssey" will likely become a classic, and Ting's production will be a template to follow.
At a preview of the play, two days before opening night, everything was in place.
Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a lost soldier from the war in Afghanistan trying to find his way home. He is a tortured man who killed another human being during the war and is haunted by that memory. He has a wife waiting for him at home and a baby, but can he go home with his hands covered in blood? He is also a man without a past, an orphan who knows nothing of his ancestors, of his place in history and he is also a pawn in the gods' rivalries.
Gardley's text brings spectators along Ulysses's long journey home. Nicholson, Omozé Idehenre as his wife Nella, and Lamont Thompson, Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall as the gods, were all equally excellent.
While the play is long, there is no down time. Every encounter adds to the picture of an ordinary black man who discovers himself, his past and what his people have been through along the way. The music, and the songs accompanying him are beautiful, including some original vocal compositions by Linda Tillery and Molly Holm.
The epic and sometime violent nature of the play is a match for the vast topic Gardley sought to embrace. Ting did not downplay the text and was not afraid to display the cruelty of the world that entraps Ulysses.
"Black Odyssey" runs through Sept. 3 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. There are only 12 performances left to see this epic play, and tickets are selling fast (Sunday's matinée is sold out). More information, visit www.calshakes.org.

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