BALTIMORE, October 18, 2013 – When an artistic director compares the work of a modern young playwright to August Wilson, you’d better pay attention. Playwright Marcus Gardley’s lead character comes very close to meeting that high standard as Michael Genet delivers a spellbinding performance as a cantankerous old bluesman Oscar in “Dance of the Holy Ghosts,” which opened this week at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
“I wrote this play because I never knew my grandfather, said playwright Marcus Gardley of his play. “He died when I was four so I wrote this blues riff for him. The women in my family were haunted by his memory. They loved him and loved to hate him and loved him in private, in hums, in whispers between teeth, in giggles when they remembered how he loved to curse and sing,” he noted in his parting remarks before catching a train back to his teaching gig in Providence, Rhode Island at Brown University.
“[Gardley’s] writing is poetic, entwining themes of spirit, history, and manhood,” says director Kwame Kwei-Armah who also serves as Center Stage artistic director. But what really brings the stark immediacy of Wilson’s plays to mind is Gardley’s liberal and righteous use of the N-word in the interplay between the powerful black male characters in the play.
“Dance of the Holy Ghosts” explores the fragmented family memories of the burned out Oscar (Michael Genet) and the collateral damage that his selfish dreams have left scattered behind, particularly for family members who have endured the disruption of their own lives.
Triggered by a visit from Marcus, his long forgotten grandson—portrayed from his days as a precocious pre-teen to his current incarnation as an angry adult by the superb Sheldon Best—Oscar, now 72, lies and denies three generations of family until forced to endure the trauma of his wife Viola’s death. (Marcus’ soliloquy on CP Time as he rushes to get Oscar to the funeral is priceless.)
“I was a player, before there was a game,” declares Oscar as he describes the attitude of his bluesman bravado, resplendent in the tacky blue performing tuxedo he insists on wearing to the climactic home-going ceremony of his beloved wife Viola. That played to mature perfection in this production by veteran stage and television actor Denise Burse, perhaps best known to TV viewers for her portrayal of Claretha Jenkins on the smash sitcom “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
The surprising Doug Askew nearly steals this show in a variety of supporting roles. He’s especially effective as Wide A$$ Willie, Oscar’s running buddy and back-stabbing antagonist who ultimately ends up sending Oscar to the penitentiary for buying some of sweet Viola’s time while Oscar is on the road chasing his dreams and living out his curse.
Scenic designer Neil Patel does an outstanding job staging a haunting, two- story set cast in autumnal earth tones, highlighted by a full moon rising against a silhouette of dying leaves that serve to capture the haunting spell of the past. Visually, the production reaches its symbolic climax against a flashing Pentecostal cross preaching from the rear wall of Head Stage’s near theater-in-the-round audience experience.
This final scene dramatically sums up the spell that “dance of the holy ghosts” casts over Center Stage. It’s a play that gets you as close you can get to August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is no mean feat these days.
Although its first act took a little too much time to develop the cast of characters, this reviewer still has to give “holy ghosts” a solid 3.5 on a scale of 4 stars. In other words, we’d strongly recommend that serious lovers of urban blues and family sagas make a run to Center Stage to catch a performance of this play, which runs through November 17th.
Below: Marcus Gardley comments on his play.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
Tickets for “dance of the holy ghosts” start at $19 and up, and can be reserved by visiting www.centerstage.org, or calling the Box Office at 410-332-0033. Center Stage is located at 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202.
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