by Brandon Ambrosino
The capable playwright Marcus Gardley wrote Dance of the Holy Ghosts: A Play on Memory. The play revolves primarily around Oscar, a blues musician, and his estranged grandson, Marcus. Dance opens with Marcus surprising his grandfather with a visit – an event that sets them on a trajectory that forces them to confront their “history of loves, regrets, and missed opportunities.”
Dance, now playing at Baltimore’s Center Stage, features Michael Genet, no stranger to Broadway or television. Genet was absolutely amazing and fearless in his portrayal of Oscar. The role calls for an actor to shift from uncontrolled rage – at one point he castrates a man – to the understated musicality that blues music demands. Genet succeeds in calling forth the nuance of the character Gardley has written, and as a result of his success, an otherwise average play will continue to stand out in the memories of those who see it.
The experience of ‘Dance of the Holy Ghosts,’ both its script and performance, is not to be missed.
Proving Genet’s equal is Denise Burse as Viola, an actress many people might recognize from Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. Like Genet, Burse proves she’s capable of finding and playing the balance her character requires: in her case, Viola’s delicate femininity with her ever-increasing sense of frustration. One of the show’s most powerful moments occurs when Oscar discovers that Viola is cheating on him. When he raises his hand to her, she invites him to beat her, but asks that he do so upstairs so her baby isn’t disturbed. It takes a special talent to pull off this bit of dialogue, but Burse does it beautifully.
Anytime you people a stage with such wonderful talents as Genet and Burse, you risk making otherwise fine actors appear to be less capable than they are. For starters, let me say that Sheldon Best’s Marcus is a very tough role to pull off. In many ways, the entire show’s message – yes, it had one, and we’ll get to it – fell crushingly onto his character. With that said, Best does a good job of creating a character that is both restrained and assertive, although in several key moments, the actor seemed to favor the latter extreme.
For instance, the scene in which Oscar asks him if he’s “funny” (see: gay) takes place in a car. Marcus is clearly agitated at the question, and makes absolutely sure the audience knows so. His choices to quickly bounce his knee and to tap his fingers on the steering wheel certainly inform us that he’s about to lose it, but I thought that such excessive fidgeting may have worked against the tension the playwright had created in this moment. Best’s knack for fidgeting is really my only criticism of this actor, who is actually quite good. But for me, because the language of the piece was so beautifully poetic, I sometimes found myself wishing that Best would hold still – or at least slow down his choppy movements – and trust Gardley’s words a bit more.
On that front, again, Gardley no doubt has a way with language, notwithstanding several turns of phrase that might have sounded a bit overwrought (though perhaps that has more to do with their delivery.) His dialogue contains the sultry hues of blues poetry, and I’m sure it felt as good for the actors to say as it did for me to hear. His linguistic tendencies have won him several comparisons with August Wilson, another twentieth-century playwright with a discernible blues influence.
Not only does it take talent to weave together this type of dialogue, but the plot, too, which shifts back and forth between the past and present day, calls for a playwright’s exacting eye. For the most part, this time shift is successful, although I think it works better in the second act, mostly because it’s easier to follow the established characters and plot points. Still, though, I think the play could stand to be tweaked a bit to establish more of a continuity of theme to persist throughout both acts.
The theme of the piece was by far the thing that still has me talking. The predominant message of the play is that young, black men need their male fathers or father figures in their lives if they are to succeed. Two thoughts on this. First, I’m extremely grateful to any playwright whose work includes the theme of reconciliation. Our world has forgotten about it, and that’s affected us negatively. Therefore, I appreciate any artist who tries to wake us up out of our numbing dreams of aloofness. Tackling this subject in any city takes bravery; tackling it in Baltimore takes the kind of bravery that pushes toward heroism.
My second thought, though, has to do with the specific solution the play offers (according to my interpretation). A few weeks back, I attended a lecture in Baltimore that discussed the issue of absent black fathers. The solution, according to author Kiese Laymon, was not male presence in the home, but an active male presence in the home. There is a way to read this script as if Gardley were suggesting that simply placing Oscar back in Marcus’ home would solve all of his problems – it won’t, and I think the suggestion really misses the point.
A further difficulty with the text is that it contains the faint (though not always faint) suggestion that Marcus’ homosexuality is the result of an absent father. So while the play pushes against some ideologies prevalent in black communities, it is still possible to read a hint of homophobia in the play’s willingness to pathologize its gay character’s gayness. (To be fair, Marcus certainly does take offense at the implication that he was somehow turned gay, rather than born gay.) Again, my interpretation could be out of step with the playwright’s own goals, and it’s definitely worth noting that this entire conversation will be helped along by some of the very ideas Gardley raises. To reiterate, Gardley should be praised for that.
A particularly nice touch – and this is chalked up to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s superb staging – is the constant motion on the split-level stage. As the primary action takes place on one part of the stage, characters go about their daily activities on the other. Sometimes, Kwei-Armah even choreographs the actors to watch the main action, reinforcing the theme that each choice a character makes will directly influence his family for generations to come. Kwei-Armah ought also to be praised for staging the piece in such a way that reflects bluesy feel of the script. While there is continuous movement on the stage, it has the easy, extemporaneous feel of a Langston Hughes poem.
As for the technical aspects of the show, Neil Patel’s set design was very good. The set was mostly minimal, and remained stationary and intact throughout the entire play. The handful of leaves that fell from the fly space as the show opened was certainly a nice effect, adumbrating the themes of memory, loss, and decay that the actors would later explore. The stage itself was divided into an upper and lower half; a division that at times echoed the spiritual themes being explored upon it. (To be clear, I am still not sure how I feel about the firehouse pole, down which Marcus would slide from the upper to lower deck.)
I had no idea what to expect going into the production of Dance of the Holy Ghosts at Baltimore’s Center Stage since I’d never seen a show there. But because the theatre’s reputation precedes it, my expectations were fairly high. Overall, my experience was extremely positive. If you haven’t been to Center Stage, you really do need to check out this gorgeous venue. The outside is basically non-descript brick, but the interior has a vintage charm that rivals any other. The stage itself is a nice size – wide, but certainly not so large that intimacy is sacrificed.
The experience of Dance of the Holy Ghosts, both its script and performance, is not to be missed. Certainly there were elements of both that could stand to be revisited, but in the end, those kinds of quirks are precisely – or rather, imprecisely – what makes blues music what it is.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with 1 intermission.
Dance of the Holy Ghosts runs through November 17, 2013 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202. For tickets call the Box Office: 410.332.0033 or click here.