Marcus Gardley Rises (and Revises)

January 18, 2012

Marcus Gardley
This content is sourced from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Playwright Marcus Gardley is having an August Wilson moment.

Like Wilson, Tennessee Williams, and other perfectionist scribes famous for continuing to work on scripts even after major productions, Gardley is re-writing the drama that put him on the map. His Dance of the Holy Ghosts: a play on memory premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2006 and launched his career. It led to many major awards, including the Kesselring Prize. Yet he has not been satisfied with it.

On Monday evening in front of a packed auditorium at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, Gardley rolled back the curtain on an entirely new draft of Holy Ghosts, with new scenes and a different ending. Under the simple and clarifying direction of Penumbra Theatre associate artistic director Dominic Taylor, who said that he has known Gardley since the latter was a playwriting pup, Holy Ghosts got a splendid reading from some of the Twin Cities’ best actors.

The Gardley-Wilson comparison also is apt in another way. Gardley’s play is rooted in African-American idiom, with stretches of swooning poetry and with lyrical language that combines urban ethos and profane, country wit.

Holy Ghosts, whose influences also include Federico Garcia Lorca, orbits aged blues guitarist Oscar Clifton (read profanely and with haunting tremulousness by Bruce A. Young). Oscar, who plays chess by himself outside a senior living home, drops in and out of memories. His rapscallion life has been filled with stories for his songs, including murder and chasing women. The dying wish of the daughter he neglected (Sonja Parks) is to have her father play at her funeral.

But Oscar is church-averse for several reasons, including the fact that he promised God that he would not go into a sanctuary again until he returned his wife, who has been his muse and lenient chess partner (Marvette Knight).

Monday’s reading of Holy Ghosts also featured Ansa Akyea as the bluesman’s pal, among other roles; Darrien Burks as the poetry-writing grandson; and Traci Allen as the grandson’s love interest.

Perhaps because the play takes place in the imagination and because it has such palpable poetry, Monday’s workshop reading was vividly realized. The scenic directions, read by Adia Morris, helped to make the temporal and spatial shifts seamless, giving the play a fluidity and energy that made it seem like audience members were inside the characters’ thoughts and dreams.

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