BWW Review: BLACK ODYSSEY is a Celebration of Music, Love and Loss
The Homeric epic The Odyssey, is at its core, a story of a man trying to return home after a war. BLACK ODYSSEY is much the same, but instead of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan war, we follow Ulysses Lincoln, a black man who joined the army to earn some money for his young family, but who was pulled into an unexpected war after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This retelling blends the classic story of The Odyssey with lots of music, fantastic costumes, heartbreak and laughter. Unlike the character of Odysseus, who seems most himself when he's fighting, killing or talking his way out of a situation; Ulysses Lincoln is a man who wants to go home, but who is also feels unworthy because of things he did during the war. He's a much more human character, played with perfect humility and inner turmoil by Joe Wilson Jr. Knowledge of the original story of The Odyssey may make certain in-jokes in this play slightly funnier, but there's absolutely no need to slog through that tome before experiencing this excellent production.
The story begins with the gods, this time called the ancestors discussing the plight of Ulysses Lincoln, and how he needs to get home to his wife Nella Pell (Nella P) and son Malachi. Great Grand Daddy Deus and Great Grand Paw Sidin are in a stalemate over Ulysses fate since Ulysses killed Paw Sidin's son, Poly'famous. What's shocking to observe, even though it's taken directly from the original text, is how the gods treat Ulysses fate like a low-stakes chess match. Then seeing the anguish on Ulyssey's face as he not only struggles to get home, but also to convince himself he deserves to go home becomes that much more powerful.
Co-directed by Trinity Company members Joe Wilson Jr. and Jude Sandy, this production is clearly a labor of love. Every detail from the sets, to the blocking, to the use of the space, to the pacing it so meticulously thought-out that it comes together beautifully. Sometimes, with two directors, you can see the compromises, but here it seems like both men were completely on the same page. Sandy's performance as Deus is regal and refined. He feels as if he's completely in charge every time he's on stage. Juxtaposed with Omar Robinson's scrappier Paw Sidin, one gets the impression that Deus is playing with Paw Sidin as much as the two of them are playing with Ulysses. Robinson's performance, and singing voice are both outstanding, and he wisely brings in some comic relief.
The Odyssey is not known as a funny book, but playwright Marcus Gardley brings in plenty of laugh out loud moments that are not only genuinely hilarious, but also serve to make the more serious moments more poignant. Cloteal L. Horne's performance as Circe as she lays out her feast is absolutely side-splitting. And Jackie Davis as Benevolence Nausicca Sabine is a complete delight.
All of the performances in this play are noteworthy, and many of the cast play multiple roles shifting seamlessly from character to character. Kalyne Coleman as Nella P is completely convincing as both a grieving wife and also a fearsome mother worried about raising her son without a father. Penelope, the original character in The Odyssey, is known as one of the strongest and smartest female characters in classical literature, and Coleman's performance does that legacy very proud.
This is a powerful night of theatre that will resonate with the viewer long after it's over. Kara Harmon's costumes are outstanding, creating a kaleidoscope of bold patterns and the musical direction by Michael Evora and choreography by yonTande really make this play an experience that's unique and wonderful.
Performances run January 3 - February 3. Tickets are on sale by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.TrinityRep.com, or in person at the theater's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence.
Photo: Cloteal L. Horne as Circe with Joe Wilson Jr. as Ulysses and the ensemble of black odyssey. Photo by Mark Turek.