A journey home can be fraught with obstacles: expectations, disappointments, guilt, and fear. But the need to reconnect with the people who loved us and made us who we are has always been a part of literature, as far back as the epic Greek tale “The Odyssey.”
Playwright Marcus Gardley gives that story a contemporary twist, filtering his homeward bound adventure through an African-American lens. In “black odyssey,” which begins performances April 25 at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater in a co-production of Front Porch Arts Collective and Underground Railway Theater, Homer’s war hero is recast as Ulysses Lincoln, a man who is trying to find his way back after a tour of duty in Afghanistan has rocked him off his foundation.
“I was thinking about my own journey home,” says Gardley, who is busy writing scripts for an Apple TV adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” (his other TV credits include Showtime’s “The Chi” and Amazon’s “Z: The Beginning of Everything”). “I grew up in a pretty violent neighborhood in Oakland, California, then went east to Yale and grad school. Finding my way back to that tight-knit community was a struggle. I returned as an artist, but they remembered the kid. I had to work to get them to see how I had changed.”
Director Benny Sato Ambush says Gardley has crafted the play to be a love letter to every community where it’s produced.
“The play was originally set in Harlem,” he says, “but for this production, Marcus reset it in Roxbury. He came out and spent time with community ambassadors who provided local lore.”
Sato Ambush describes the play, which travels through history, as “fusion theater” for its mix of classic references, with nods to the Supremes and James Brown, the Scottsboro Boys, and Martin Luther King Jr.
“When I sat down to write the play, I wrote a scene for every chapter in the original story, so the play was about 300 pages long,” Gardley says with a laugh. “But when I thought about what was important, I focused on the scenes that had the most profound effect on his journey; the moments that taught Ulysses about his humanity.”
“As a black man in America, making it home is one of the day-to-day missions I feel in my bones,” says actor Brandon Green, who plays Ulysses Lincoln. “But Marcus Gardley has added a beauty and lyricism to that quest and reminders to acknowledge the people who made me, me.”
Green says he’s also been struck by the nuances and subtleties of a script filled with “Easter eggs” — details that add a sense of wonder to things that happen to people in everyday life. Those simple moments and the connections the characters have to each other amplify moments outside the play, he says.
Director Sato Ambush says “black odyssey” has created an opportunity to bring a broad range of creative people into one room. In addition to the nine-member cast, Gardley has also welcomed local composers and musicians to add new music to a score that includes African-American spirituals.
“Composer Allyssa Jones, musician Akili Jamal Haynes, choreographer Melissa Alexis, and I are working as a unit,” he says, “to make sure we respect the cultural flavor of Marcus’s poetic language while giving the play the rich dimension the story demands.”
Sato Ambush says his goal is to create the feeling that the audience is sitting around a campfire experiencing this personal love story together. That meshes with Gardley’s intentions.
“I hope that when people leave the theater,” the playwright says, “they will reach out to people they love and tell them [they] love them.”
A final word from Israeli Stage
After nearly a decade presenting international playwrights and often controversial topics, Israeli Stage is closing the curtain.
“When I started the company as a 19-year-old undergraduate, I had no thought of running a theater company, let alone for this long,” says 29-year-old Guy Ben-Aharon, Israeli Stage’s founder and artistic director. “I wanted to see how theater can serve as a platform that helps us get to know people and things we don’t know.”
Over the years, Israeli Stage has produced a wide range of stories, including the struggles of Moroccan-Israeli women, a therapist questioning her faith, and work by the most famous living Israeli playwright, Joshua Sobol. The company’s final production, “The Return,” explores a meeting between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian mechanic who repairs Israeli army trucks. It runs April 26-May 19 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts ($25, 617-933-8600, www.israelistage.com).
“It’s a mystery play, a thriller,” says Ben-Aharon, “but it’s also been very controversial in Israel.” It was the first play produced in Hebrew at an Arabic-speaking theater in Israel, he says, and the theater was subsequently defunded by the cultural ministry because its productions were deemed inappropriate for Israeli audiences.
Once again, says Ben-Aharon, Israeli Stage is providing a home for a vibrant theatrical work seen as too political to be staged in Israel (last year Israeli Stage produced “The Last Act,” Sobol’s adaptation of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” when it could not find a home in Israel).
Written by Seattle-based playwrights Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, “The Return,” refers to the controversial right of return — the principle that Palestinians forced out of their homes in 1948 when Israel was created have the right to return and recover their property. For Palestinians, the right of return is a matter of justice, while Israelis see it as a threat to Israel’s identity.
“It’s really a beautifully written story of two human beings who meet one another outside of the political landscape,” Ben-Aharon says. “They are not characters with convictions, they are characters with desires. What is powerful about this very spare and beautifully written script is that it shakes the ground underneath us.”
The theater, says Ben-Aharon, should provide opportunities to ask provocative questions and present different points of view.
“The arts exist to expand the mind and spark the imagination to deal with issues we’d rather push under the rug,” he says. “We’re not necessarily trying to change minds, we’re just asking people to listen and create empathy.”
Ben-Aharon says he’s been overwhelmed by the support Israeli Stage has received over the years, from audiences that represent different points of view on the Israeli/Palestinian situation. Though he’s closing his theater, he’s preparing a second act.
“My next project, which we will be announcing soon, will continue to encourage individuals to awaken the courage to tune into narratives that are not our own,” he says.
Presented by Front Porch Arts Collective and Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, April 25-May 19. Tickets $16-$66, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.orgTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.