Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project last presented Marcus Gardley’s Dance of the Holy Ghosts in 2015, when it expanded, with assistance from Gardley, from a six-person cast to an ensemble of 15 complete with a gospel chorus. Staged in the aisles of Oakland City Church, Ubuntu brought to life the story of three generations of family history, from the Deep South to the California Coast.
Now in a third iteration, with a 17-member ensemble and directed again by Michael Socrates Moran, Ubuntu strikes a mostly effective balance between the ghosts that haunt this sprawling family saga and the earthy humanity that grounds it.
Gardley, who grew up in West Oakland, has an artistically fruitful history of collaborating with Bay Area theatre companies, including Shotgun Players, Cutting Ball Theater, Berkeley Rep, and California Shakespeare Company. But no other West Coast company has tackled Dance of the Holy Ghosts, Gardley’s homage to his own Oakland roots and complex family history, let alone staged it three times.
Additions to the script in 2015 (such as a narrator character, Woman Old As Wisdom) have been removed, though the gospel chorus, who comment on the action and take on various bit parts throughout, remains. Set in the sanctuary of another church (Oakland Peace Center, originally First Christian Church of Oakland) the audience files into the pews while the ensemble sings gospel hymns from the choir loft as the preshow, effectively setting the mood somewhere between reverence and nostalgia.
Enter Marcus (Michael Curry), young, suited, somber, alone. He leafs through a leather-bound notebook and begins to sing a Yoruban folk tune, his voice sweet and mournful. Eventually the entire gospel ensemble joins in, arranging themselves on the various levels of the stage as tableaux. In contrast, the only character singing Oscar’s song when he enters from the back of the room is Oscar himself (Berwick Haynes), performing an out-of- character spiritual in a rich baritone, as he progresses slowly down the aisle to take his rightful place centerstage.