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.
Part-time patriarch and full-time player, it’s Oscar’s memories that dominate much of the play, interspersed and intertwined with Marcus’, whose attempts to come to terms with his grandfather’s shortcomings as a family man drive his own strolls down memory lane. But before we get to the past, Marcus must find the Oscar of the present to invite him to the funeral of his only child, Marcus’ mother, Darlene (Elizabeth Jones).
Their first encounter is not auspicious. Oscar querulously refuses to admit his identity and acknowledge their family connection, but as soon as he runs Marcus off, he falls into a memory of him as a small boy and their then-relationship, full of boisterous posturing on his end and nerd-awkward hero-worship on Marcus’. It’s during these forays into rhythmic reminiscence that Gardley’s roots as a poet are especially evident. He’s not afraid to use ten words where another playwright might use two, flights of lyrical fancy that shoot for the rafters. This innate musicality is a hallmark of Gardley's work, as is his fascination with stories of epic scope without tidy conclusions: raw, messy, with a touch of magical realism.
Gardley's poetic turn-of-phrase is especially rich in the mouth of Haynes, who joined the cast late in the rehearsal process, but nonetheless embodies his flawed but frequently charming protagonist with empathetic sincerity. With it he woos the headstrong Viola, played with feline grace by Halili Knox (who played Woman Old As Wisdom in 2015), and lulls his daughter to sleep during a rare moment together. In Curry’s mouth the poetry is more tentative, as the character Marcus spends much of the play feeling his way towards adulthood. However, he's given what may be the most poignant speech of the play at its end, and it’s satisfying to witness his completed transformation into the man he was perhaps always destined to become.
Where the play fails to satisfy are in some of the more superfluous storylines, particularly those set in young Marcus’ fourth-grade Catholic school classroom, despite Halili Knox’ dual-role as the gamin-cute “new girl,” Marcus’ first crush, and the humorously ineffectual Father Michael (Anthone Jackson). As droll as many of these vignettes are, they distract from the already expansive, non-linear retelling of a history long on detail and short on pith. In all, the play runs close to the three-hour mark, with all the same discomforts and rewards as a church service of the same length might offer: hard pews, inadequate heating, a shot at transcendence.
For congregants who take pleasure in the rewards of opening themselves to a shared experience with fellow truth-seekers, this show offers a real opportunity to abandon oneself to the singular melody of Marcus Gardley’s ode to his childhood home. But for those who like their theater with more creature comforts and fewer tests of endurance, Ghosts might feel less like a revelation and more like a chore.
'Dance of the Holy Ghosts' runs through Saturday, March 31, at Oakland Peace Center in Oakland. Details here.