“black odyssey boston”: Greek Myth Meshes Beautifully with African Diaspora

Brandon G. Green & Johnny Lee Davenport. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

Presented by by The Front Porch Arts Collective & Underground Railway Theater
Written by Marcus Gardley
Directed by Benny Sato Ambush
Choreographed by Melissa Alexis
Music Directed by Alyssa Jones

April 25 – May 19, 2019
Central Square Theatre
450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Cambridge, MA) Brandon G. Green is Ulysses Malcolm Lincoln, a soldier who’s unmoored. Not just unmoored on the sea, but unmoored in time, place, and personhood. We follow him on a journey as episodic as The Odyssey with as much raw, mythic power. The classic epic has been broken down and rebuilt with a mosaic of African diaspora culture. black odyssey boston is truly an epic in that it is three hours of fantastical and strange adventures. It finds its way home, however, not when it tries to piece together every popular touchstone it can lay its hands on, but when it focuses on the human relationships of its characters.

Three hours is a lot of play to take in, intermission or no. I would not imagine, though, cutting the likes of the funky Super Fly Tireseus (Johnny Lee Davenport), blues singing Circe (the luminous Ramona Lisa Alexander), or the formidable gods. Among their number is Great Aunt Tee (Carolyn Saxon), the wise Athena figure with a vested interest in driving a lost soldier home, and Great Grand Paw Sidon (Regie Gibson), the angry sea god looking for justice after Ulysses kills his son, Poly’famous (Hubens “Bobby” Cius), in Afghanistan.

Classistics have reason to rejoice. This show hews closely to the Odyssey’s structure, even if doing so means the plot doesn’t have the tightness of the beginning, middle, and end of contemporary narratives. It wanders with Ulysses. And so do we.

All the moving parts of the show are mesmerizing. Aja M Jackson brings beautiful lighting that compliments Jon Savage’s gorgeous set design. The pieces of black culture are knit together with Greek mythos and contemporary city in a lovingly rendered patchwork quilt.

Percussionist Akili Jamal Haynes brings some sick beats that reveal a whole new layer of engagement to the show.

The story intermittently visits Nella Pell (Elle Borders) as she struggles to wait for her husband to come home. Playwright Marcus Gardley makes sure she has plenty to do and deal with as a Penelope figure not just there to keep the home fires burning, but looking to find herself just as Ulysses does.

For the rest of the show, we follow Ulysses through the waking fantasia of the In Between. There, the year 1968 is a place and Hurricane Katrina’s survivors continue to wait on rooftops for help that won’t come. Kai Thomani Tshikosi is particularly affecting as Artez Sabine, sure of the goodness of the government even though he and his family remain stranded.

The show tries to cram in everything, a jigsaw puzzle assembled from references to the Black Lives Matter movement, 9/11, marijuana legalization, and the precious 21st century treasure that is an Xbox. It casts a vast net across a rich, roiling pop culture firmament. So much is folded into every line and sung in ever song, whether we’re listening to a ghostly rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or to siren Tina Turner (again, Ramona Lisa Alexander, who steals the show in just about every scene she’s in). It’s a lot to put into one play. By the end, I felt held up by the wealth of history but exhausted by climbing the mountain which the story builds for its audience.

black odyssey boston is a lovely creation. Even the long runtime felt worth it. For those ready to take in three hours of a journey through contemporary Black history, it’s a gift.

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