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black odyssey

Tony Todd as Paw Sidin and Cleavant Derricks as Deus
Tony Todd as Paw Sidin
and Cleavant Derricks as Deus
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
If anyone ever doubted the universality of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's black odyssey should put such questions to rest. Gardley leverages the classic text as the framework for an adventurous tale that metaphorically captures the African American experience.

The gods, Zeus (Cleavant Derricks as Deus) and Poseidon (Tony Todd as Paw Sidon), engage in a battle for supremacy, the fallout from which severely impacts all mortals within range, the foremost of which is Ulysses Malcolm Lincoln (Jason Bowen), who has slain Poseidon's son (Cyclops).

Ulysses adrift on the river of African-American history
Ulysses adrift on the
river of African-American history
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Given the trials and tributlations of African Americans, Gardley's plot choice couldn't have been better. Ulysses undergoes every possible abuse, including being given up for dead and having his wife, Penelope (Shamika Cotton as Nella Pee Jerome Lincoln), courted by his enemy.

Gardley personalizes Ulysses' symbolic African American journey by weaving a compelling backstory involving his wife, his son Telemachus (Erick Lockley as Malachi Malcolm Little Lincoln), his great aunt Athena (Brenda Pressley as Great Aunt Tina), and his mother Calypso (Kim Staunton as Queen Mother Calypso Lincoln).

Shamika Cotton as Nella Pee and Jason Bowen as Ulysses Lincoln
Shamika Cotton as Nella Pee
and Jason Bowen as Ulysses Lincoln
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
The black Ulysses' odyssey spans soldiering in Afghanistan, the flooding of New Orleans, and encounters with the great archtypal threats—the whirlpool, the sea monster, and the sirens, etc., as well as various significant events, both tragic and comic, in African-American history—to which Bowen responds with passion and emotional complexity, drawing us into Ulysses' plight and pulling for his survival.

Cotton's journey is equally remarkable, as a struggling single mother in the projects. The confluence of her and Bowen's dramatic arcs pack a whallop.

When it comes to enterainment, who could forget Super Fly?
When it comes to enterainment,
who could forget Super Fly?
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
The repartee, one-upsmanship, and exercise of sheer cosmic power between Derricks' and Todd's immortals keeps the issue in doubt until the end.

Strong matriarchal consolation and African rhythms from Pressley and Staunton anchor the emotional ride. Wonderful performances from the ensemble and nearly a dozen spirituals amplify the cathartic scope. Beautifully directed by Chay Yew and choreographed by Robert Davidson.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of black odyssey runs through February 16th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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