The rat-a-tat-tat of pulsating streams of words pound through the shifting layers of meaning and reality stuffed into one evening in the black pit of Yale’s New Theater.
In its world premiere production at the Yale Repertory Theater, “dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory” by Marcus Gardley DRA ’04 makes an impact with the all consuming performance of its central figure, emerging as the pivotal force in a wandering epic reminiscent simultaneously of both Wilson and Proust.
Oscar Clifton, the stellar Chuck Cooper, is a rovin’ blues man arriving on the stage highlighted with a spotlight saying, “God I miss you …” From this striking, luminous moment, the play travels through the maze and mist of Clifton’s memories woven together with the present and memories of his grandson Marcus G., played with a youthful gusto by Brian Henry DRA ’07.
Sweet potato pie, chess and the Holy Ghost serve as reference points in the convoluted plot line that follows an associative pattern, eschewing linear time in search of a deeper truth. In his first major production, Gardley reaches for more than simple story telling. With clever juxtaposition and character doubling he attempts to find the substance between moments chronologically years apart but closer than most would imagine.
As a young black playwright, Gardley follows in the tradition of the late August Wilson, succeeding in creating play whose cast is entirely African American without a contrived sense of playing up typical stereotypes. The work dances around universal themes, using a full palate of colors to create a fully realized work of art without remaining beholden to any preconceived conception of what it should accomplish.
When he isn’t ruminating theatrically on the mysteries of time and memory, Gardley slams down a collection of one-liners, dutifully achieving a steady flow of predictable laughter.
“I was a player long before there was even a game,” Clifton chuckles. He then continues to teach his grandson, a thinly veiled amalgamation of the playwright and his brother, how to have game.
This almost lowbrow comedy — followed later with a sudden appearance of a certain ’80s moon-walking pop star, mixes with serious themes of rejection, love and intimacy like oil and water, alternately accepting and rejecting any sense of cohesion.
The costumes, by Jennifer Moeller DRA ’06, appear to be plucked from randomized locations and aesthetics. These combining with the sparse set by Aleksandra Maslik DRA ’06, and minimal hazy lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton, leaves the play in a limbo without a firm understanding of location or progression.
Through it all Cooper remains a fascinating and captivating presence, his performance pulsating with a sense of gravity and truth that anchors the production. His voice emanates from a well far deeper than his character’s rather unlikable superficial nature would suggest.
In a fiery turn as Clifton’s love interest, Viola Eaton, Harriett D. Foy spars with the passionate Clifton, using her words like chess pieces, placing them with a precise plan of attack. The rest of the ensemble juggles a dozen roles, creating physically comical portraits of characters that wander through the memories like puppets. Whatever they lack in naturalism is mostly filled by the panache with which they execute their schtick.
The production romps through the first sections before degenerating near the end into contrasts a bit too stark to be justifiable. Galdrey has the beginnings of a vital and surprising work that will only benefit from further exploration.
The brilliance of a young playwright beginning to stretch out into experimental realms combined with an engrossing veteran actor makes “dance of the holy ghosts” an always surprising, if not entirely satisfying, theatrical adventure.