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Stage set for the opening scene of black odyssey, as the audience waits for the show to begin.

{All photo credits except the image above are by Mark Turek, courtesy Trinity Repertory Company.}

While I was in Providence, Will and I attended a show at Trinity Repertory Company, just a few blocks from where I stayed at the Biltmore hotel. Black odyssey plays from January 3 through February 3, and if you get a chance to go, you must do it! This is not Homer’s classical story of The Odyssey, but a political and historical piece that resonates when viewed against the backdrop of Homer’s work.

The audience finds out pretty soon that the gods are toying with the humans. Paw Sidin (Poseidon) sucking on a knight chess piece reminded me of the scene in that 1981 movie Clash of the Titans, when the gods loomed over tiny clay models of humans. In the movie, when the gods damaged the clay models, the actual people suffered. As Paw Sidin sucked on the knight, the human was drowning in the ocean.

Ulysses (Odysseus) was returning from duty in Afghanistan to his home in Oakland, with the weight of a murder on his soul. Paw Sidin was angry beause the man Ulysses killed in Afghanistan was his son. He knocked Ulysses into the water, vowing vengeance. Ulysses is barely kept alive by Aunt Tina (Athena) who begs her father Deus (Zeus) to spare him because he is her nephew. The play is the story of the gods battling in a game of chess over how to resolve this dispute.

The stage is painted as a chess board, so that you never forget that theme.

Costumes, shoes, and songs wowed us.

When Circe enraptured us with the pure pleasures of eating, the entire audience was salivating. And maybe not just for food. 😉

On the far right and left of the stage sit piles of old television sets that at first didn’t make much sense to me as a prop, and then became integral. The sets are different sizes, one tipped onto its side, and each displays a different scene, so the message isn’t always obvious. When Ulysses is drowning, for example, the scenes were all of rough ocean waters – that was pretty obvious. But at other times during the show, there are scenes from Oakland city, news broadcasts of historical events, or other evocative imagery including contemporary events like flooding during Hurricane Katrina and recognizable police camera footage, that help the audience put pieces together.

I’m one of those people that needs help in a story. I’m not very good at inferences from imagery in art, in acting, or in words. I’m oblivious to song lyrics. The screens brought it home for me.

I read The Odyssey a few years ago. A lot of you have read it, and you might remember that Odysseus was just trying to get home to his wife. The trials he had to endure crossed the line into ridiculousness and are only believable in the context of gods. He is captured by a Cyclops, the crew is turned into pigs, they are subjected to Sirens, Odysseus is trapped on an island and when he gets away his raft is destroyed. Come on!

Marcus Gardley wrote the play black odyssey based on The Odyssey to tell the story of a black man in America. In the play, Ulysses can’t find his way back to his wife and son for 16 years (turns out she was pregnant when he was shipped to the desert to fight). So many terrible things challenge them. The trials they all endure while he battles his demons and his wife raises their boy alone, cross the line into ridiculousness. Their story would only be believable if set in the context of, well, being a black family in America. Ouch.

Left to right: Omar Robinson as Paw Sidin, Julia Lema as Aunt Tina, and Jude Sandy as Deus.

Ulysses was lost at sea, so there are a lot of scenes with water, and rain.

Poverty, oppression, despair, manipulation, aggression and greed seep through the lives of these characters and try to destroy them. Ulysses is dragged and dropped by the gods Paw Sidin and Deus from one pivotal historic moment to another, teaching him that who he is has been shaped by his ancestors. There is a trail of pain and betrayal.

But there was so much love, too. It’s the emotion that seemed to catch my attention most often: love.

Ulysses would be lost many times, but for the power inside him. He and his family have reservoirs of love, and hope, and pride, and stubbornness that never let them give up. Against the careless whims of the gods, Ulysses somehow continues to survive. He learns to reach back in time to his ancestors and to use their love for him to fuel his efforts. The central message in the play is that we are a product of our ancestors, even when we don’t know anything about them, and that we should use our ancestors as a source of strength.

Another message is that our battles seem to be with outside forces, like gods playing chess, or the police, or the projects, but our theatre of war is actually within. Those battles need to be fought inside ourselves before the catastrophes on the outside can be resolved. Ulysses says, “We are who we have been waiting for.” That sentence was a jolt to me because I had already heard it in my own life, applied to me. At a Cherokee meeting two years ago, rapper Litefoot told us those exact words.

The show’s opening chorus was not a standalone musical event, but rather ushered us into a performance filled with song. I wasn’t expecting all the singing, or what a great vehicle it is in this case to help tell the story. There were some fun scenes as Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and James Brown performed. We heard African-American and Afro-Cuban spirituals and chants, lullabies, work songs and civil rights anthems. Many were known to the audience and the actors persistently asked us to join in singing and clapping.

Engaging with the actors helped to blur the wall between us, and I could not avoid yet another powerful impact of this performance, when I realized this story was about my path too. I couldn’t relate to Ulysses, but his journey – through all those ancestors – was beside me, and I saw my part in his story. I am not separate from him, and I need to know his story as well as mine.

Joe Wilson, Jr as Ulysses, and Julia Lema as Calypso.

Supa Fly Tiresias and his entourage.

The play is intense. I cried. In fact, the end of the first act was such a shock to me that in the first minutes of intermission I numbly put on my coat and stood to leave, thinking it was over. Will had to snap me out of it.

And the play is funny! It’s a delight of colour and texture and noise. It’s absolutely relatable. The costumes are out of this world. Will and I went crazy for the shoes. The SHOES! Ha ha ha. There’s a constant play on words for those of you who want a dozen little secret jokes. A couple of times the actors acknowledged someone in the audience who had become very engaged, and those moments made it more of an event than a show.

Every single actor is outstanding. They play multiple roles that overlap, such as the actor playing Paw Sidin also plays John Suitor, who tries to lure Nella Pell (Penelope) away from her dedication to her missing husband. The actress who plays Benevolence (Nausicaa) was such a convincing 10-year-old that I tried and tried, but could not figure out who was playing her until the end!

There is a happy ending. After the first, awful death, no other character dies. The gods leave Ulysses alone and are restored to good temper. For now.

All images in this post used with permission from Portland Center Stage. https://www.flickr.com/photos/portlandcenterstage/sets/72157671722653471

All images in this post used with permission from Portland Center Stage. https://www.flickr.com/photos/portlandcenterstage/sets/72157671722653471

I live 47 miles from Astoria, Oregon. It’s a lovely town at the mouth of the Columbia River, sheltered a couple miles in from the Pacific Ocean by a serious sand bar and Cape Disappointment (the name of the cape is a bit of foreshadowing).

There are three stories I want to tell you. 1) The story itself: the real life nation-building story. 2) The play about the story, which somehow totally works! 3) The Armory, the building hosting the play.

The overland party, looking ahead and realizing their destination remains far away.

The overland party, looking ahead and realizing their destination remains far away.

The wicked Captain Thorn gazes to the horizon from the deck of his ship.

The wicked Captain Thorn gazes to the horizon from the deck of his ship.

I entered the theatre with a virgin understanding of the journey about to unfold. That is, no understanding. I had learned, in the course of reading a brief synopsis while buying my tickets, that the man who financed the expedition to found Astoria was John Jacob Astor. And in that way, two weeks ago, I learned how the town got its name. That should illustrate the level of not knowing the story I’m talking about.

Over the next 3 hours I began to realize it’s a *monumental* story of how my part of the North American continent became the United States instead of Russian territory, or British, or Canadian. Before the play I could tell you more about the founder of the McDonald’s franchise than I could about the early explorers of Oregon, because we are products of what we’re fed through media. Why oh why aren’t we fed the good and healthy stuff?

The play is based on the book by the same name, written by Peter Stark. It’s set mostly in 1810. Astor was a wealthy German immigrant who wanted to become more wealthy by capitalizing on the fabulous otter pelts that rumor had it were there for the taking on the Pacific Coast. From his home in New York City, Astor arranged for two separate approaches to the Columbia River: one by land and one by sea. Back then, the sea route was by way of Cape Horn, Chile. Remarkably, the sailors got there first. The time pressure is a plot point, since whomever establishes the first trading post will control the fur markets on the west coast and will certainly have access to the most wealth. Astor is constantly fretting about news that the French might beat him to the prize.

Early in the trip, future sailors of the Tonquin maneuver a smaller boat.

Sailors from the ship maneuver a smaller boat.

One night around the campfire with the overland party.

One night around the campfire with the overland party.

Hundreds of people joined his expeditions, including men from Scotland, Hawaii, Quebec, Ireland, and England who joined the original Americans on the teams. And original, original Americans (indigenous people) contributed further to the survival of those who did make it to the destination. Because yes, many people died along the way, including the two Hawaiians who froze to death trying to cross the bar into the Columbia River. They were not the only men who died at the bar, in the shadow of Cape Disappointment. Remember I said “foreshadowing?”

What’s remarkable, and irresistible, about this story, is how much went spectacularly wrong. Many people died by accident, and some were killed. Two went insane. Often people fought with each other, and hated each other. Miraculous are the repeated incidences of survival in the snow, survival from starving, survival from drowning, from raging ocean storms. Though catastrophes don’t always result, there was always a threat: of mutiny, getting lost, scalped, abandoned.

Chris Coleman, the artistic director, pulled off magic with that stage. One set, mind you – with occasional backdrops – conveyed a ship on the open sea, or a wealthy fur-merchant’s home, or a frontier fort, or a camp in steep mountains, beside a creek. We got up close and personal with four people rowing a boat, we listened to quiet conversation among the bunks below deck of the ship, we huddled close to the fire and tried not to feel hungry while a trapper told a story, we gasped in despair when three provisioned boats smashed and were lost in a river, and we watched while travelers reluctantly slid from their horses to continue on foot. All one set, and it worked. Like I said: magic.

Scenes with all actors on the deck of the ship were convincing partly because everyone swayed in unison with the waves. We soon learned that tables can be anything, often boats. I enjoyed the artistic creativity throughout, such as when Astor meets with three potential leaders of the excursions. All three are on stage at the same time, in points making a triangle. As each one leaves the meeting with Astor, they rotate until another is before Astor.

More magic: 16 members of the cast! Just imagine how many people you would need to portray the multiple journeys (one by sea with all the crew to run a ship, the overland party split into two, and still Astor remained in New York), and then imagine only 16 people bringing it to life. It’s a tribute to the quality of the actors that they were able to pull this off, switching back and forth between dramatically different characters, such as when Leif Norby starts as John Jacob Astor but becomes a crusty, bearded Frontiersman Edward Robinson, and back and forth. DeLanna Studi is introduced as Astor’s elegant wife, then becomes a pregnant Indian woman, then switches back. The accents switched from thick Scottish to Kentucky backwoods to prim English to French to German. Wow! I’ll interject my only criticism here: impressed as I am by the ability of the actors to do this, it was distracting to look into their faces and recognize other characters. This was amplified because I was in the front row and so close I could discern crow’s feet. I think at a distance it would not have been such a problem for me.

Antoine and Joseph consider the finer qualities of distant mountain peaks.

Antoine and Joseph consider the finer qualities of distant mountain peaks.

Action never stopped, and even the slow moments were tense or foreboding. In real life the years-long journey was a grueling series of hardships day after day, but on stage the successes and catastrophes rode each other’s heels, barely allowing an audience-member’s heart to settle in between. Amidst the hardest times in life, humans manage to find a way to laugh at their circumstances, and thus we had a not insignificant number of funny moments, such as when a couple of Frenchmen gazing at sharp mountain peaks began comparing them to breasts (“Grand teton” is large breasts, in French, and we can only imagine our travelers must have been in Wyoming about then).

Surprisingly, there was a lot of singing, though it was not a musical. I found this to be very effective support to enriching the scenes, helping us to be back in time with the actors, and helping us to understand the cultures blending on stage. One funny example was during a scene with many people rowing a boat and singing to keep the cadence. It was one of those classic tunes that multiple countries claim, with their own lyrics, and the rowers from different lands were competing for which was the “correct” version of the song, with good-natured and rowdy aggression, singing louder and louder like sports fans arguing over favourite teams.

Robinson and McKenzie face off.

Robinson and McKenzie face off.

At long last the overland parties reunite and find the Columbia River (though not yet its mouth). Captain Thorn sends enough sailors to the bar that eventually some of them live to find the entrance into the river. And that’s the end of part one! We have to wait until Portland Center Stage presents next year’s performances, to find out what happens in the end. In the meantime, I’m going to read the book.

I mentioned earlier that the performance was about 3 hours, but that includes a nice long intermission halfway through. Before the show I had admired some of the structure of the old brick building, called the Armory, and at intermission I investigated further.

The brick structure appears castle-like from the street, but it’s hard to get a good look at it because it’s downtown in the Pearl District and surrounded by tall buildings. Inside, I saw that the entire expanse is open: no support beams the length of it. There are two levels, but the second level is merely a balcony, a mezzanine level, that surrounds the open lobby with places to sit and chat, or look out the window. So I looked out the windows, which are bonafide rifle slits – glassed in and wood-framed, ha ha – leaving no doubt about the military origins of the building. I walked right up and put my hands on the bricks. Something about touching something helps me connect to the proper time and place to understand it.

So many bits were intriguing to me that I had questions about its construction, and sought out the concierge. I asked for an information brochure.

“We have a book, if you want,” he said. “It’s a regular, bound book, all about this building. We give them to people who are particularly interested.”

It was the most serendipitous outcome of a random question that I’ve had in some time. The man walked off, and returned moments later holding a large, gorgeous, illustrated, full-colour, 192-page book about how a crumbling and abandoned former military armory became a modern theatre. In fact, that’s the name of the book: “Voices of the Armory: A Chronicle of the Transformation of a 19th century icon into a 21st century theater.”

“Here you go!” he said, obviously pleased to hand it over. “It’s free! I think you’ll love it. I have one and I love it.”

This beautiful book was more than I could have expected.

This beautiful book was more than I could have expected.

A peek inside, where there are hundreds of photos of the restoration of the Armory.

A peek inside, where there are hundreds of photos of the restoration of the Armory.

The show was originally supposed to run through February 12th, but was so successful that the run was extended. If you are in Portland, you can still see it, and you should! Look for it at https://www.pcs.org/ Tickets are available through February 19th.

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