Review: ‘Dance of the Holy Ghosts — A Play on Memory’ by Marcus Gardley (***)

by Victor Cordell
Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

dance

Thanks for the Memory

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Oakland-reared playwright Marcus Gardley has impressed the Bay Area theatre community with his well-received “And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” and “Head of Passes.” Currently, Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project offers a revival of his first produced play, “Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory.” Appropriately, the play is being performed at Oakland City Church.

The central character is Oscar Clifton, a live-alone, self-indulgent, 72 year old. While laid-back, Oscar is a man of passions — a guitarist by trade, a skirt chaser by nature, and a chess player by pastime. His life’s moments are recorded in a book of memories, which acts as a reference source for a time-layered reflection of significant periods of his adult family life. Oscar is deftly played by Keith Wallace, who exudes the charm, irritability, and irresponsibility of the character.

Oscar’s current nemesis is his grandson, Marcus G., and it is hard to ignore the playwright’s choice of his own name for this character. William Thomas Hodgson plays Marcus through various ages and, like Wallace, without the benefit of makeup changes. He, too, is very convincing in his portrayal, moving back and forth from the fourth grade through adulthood. His spotty relationship with his grandfather swings from domineered to demanding, and Hodgson commands the emotional tenor of each age well.

The key events in Oscar’s life center around relationship conflicts with his long estranged wife Viola and daughter Darlene, adeptly played by Candace Thomas and Megan Wells, respectively. Oscar is a recurring disappointment to the women in his life who want to rely on him and love him.

Dance of the Holy Ghosts plays at Oakland City Church through August 2. For further information, click here.

Rounding out a fine cast of principal actors is Halili Knox, listed in the program as “Woman of Wisdom.” As an apparition reading stage directions and narrative transitions, she provides an authoritative presence. The proceedings are rhythmically punctuated with original music and dance of both black American and Swahili origin, delivered by an always present lively choir that rings or fronts the stage.

Ubuntu is using site-specific locations for their current season, and the ambiance created by the church setting is suited to this work. The scope for staging and lighting is somewhat restricted, but the bare bones setting is appropriate, and the choir, informally draped around the stage, is an effective substitution for a more conventional set.

Two versions of this play have been previously produced, the original (with a three hour running time) and a 40-minute shorter revision. In consultation with the playwright, Ubuntu is performing the original. Although most all of the vignettes are engaging, not all are essential to the dramatic arc. In particular, a long episode concerning Marcus G. interacting with his fourth grade classmates is superfluous. One can hypothesize that Gardley is loath to relinquish something that he had invested effort in or that retaining this episode is a way to give a meatier role to attract an equity actor. And it is true that Hodgson stretches his acting chops with this scene, but it is a drag on the play’s momentum. Although the singing and dancing add considerable color, they provide sense rather than meaning and could also be reduced by a third without loss.

All things considered, this is the kind of work that deserves an audience, and hopefully it will attract regular theater lovers as well as underserved communities. Kudos to director Michael Socrates Moran for demonstrating that rewarding theater can come from very limited resources.

‘Dance of the Holy Ghosts’ plays at Oakland City Church through August 2. For further information, click here.

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“Dance of the Holy Ghosts – a Play on Memory” by Marcus Gardley, produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Director: Michael Socrates Moran. Scenic Designer: Seren Moran. Props Master: Mary Hill. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Ann Johnson. Costume Consultant: Luther Michael Spratt. Choreographer: Latanya D. Tigner. Choir Director: Branice McKenzie.

Oscar: Keith Wallace. Marcus G.: William Thomas Hodgson. Woman Old as Wisdom: Halili Knox. Viola: Candace Thomas. Darlene: Megan Wells. Big Ass Willie Smalls: William Oliver III. Father Michael: William H.P. Precious Parquet: Katrina Allen. Princess Parquett: Leigh Rondon-Davis. Erma: Kimberly Daniels. Paramour: Vintre Scott. Musician: Elandis Brooks.

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