‘black odyssey boston’ reimagines a classic tale through a black lens
“black odyssey boston,” a co-production of The Front Porch Arts Collective and Underground Railway Theater, is a who’s who of black talent in the Boston theater scene. Packed with triple threats, humor and song, this production is a must-see love letter to African American culture.
Running through May 19 at Central Square Theater, “black odyssey boston” is a reimagining of the epic Greek poem that follows Odysseus on his mystical journey from war back to his home and his wife. Here the fabled hero is Ulysses Lincoln, a soldier trying to find his way home from Afghanistan to his wife and the son he’s never met. But first he must overcome obstacles, connect with his ancestors and come to terms with his past. All the while the fate of the earthly characters is controlled by hilarious, heavenly gods including Great Grand Daddy Deus (Johnny Lee Davenport) for Zeus and Paw Sidin (Regie Gibson) for Poseidon.
The mythical components of the show are balanced with history (the Civil Rights movement, Hurricane Katrina, slavery) and contemporary issues like police brutality and racial profiling. Unlike castle-dwelling Penelope of the original Greek “Odyssey,” Ulysses Lincoln’s wife Nell is a working single mother in the projects trying desperately to keep her son safe and get him on the path to bigger opportunities.
The small cast of 10 works overtime to make every minute of the three-hour production dynamic, entertaining and insightful. Dialogue is interspersed with spoken word poetry, spirituals, and Yoruba chants and narrative dances.
Director Benny Sato Ambush was familiar with playwright Marcus Gardley and had seen one of the early productions of “black odyssey” in Oakland, California. Ambush was particularly impressed with the way Gardley had made parts of the show very specific to the area it was performed in. In partnership with HowlRound and Boston College, Gardley came to Boston in October 2018 to learn about the city and incorporate the surroundings into the Boston production. He interviewed 20 people, young and old, who had grown up in Boston’s black neighborhoods to pull very specific, community-oriented images into the show.
As a result, the production is peppered with familiar images like the Orange Line, Dudley Station and Mass Ave, and poetic lines like “You’re grand when you’re a black man strolling in Mattapan.” The performance welcomes white audiences, but doesn’t cater to them — it’s unapologetically black in a theater landscape that desperately needs that perspective. If there was ever a production to define the phrase “melanin magic,” this is it.