An Absence, Inadequately Explained: Gardley’s dance of the holy ghosts at Centerstage

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An Absence, Inadequately Explained: Gardley’s dance of the holy ghosts at Centerstage

Posted on October 24, 2013

Marcus Gardley’s dance of the holy ghosts, at Baltimore’s Centerstage, is centrally about missing fathers and the holes they leave in the lives of their children, grandchildren, and themselves. But it also a sort of bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist, here the playwright, as a growing young man. Tackling these two subjects in one play may not be the best choice.

The “missing” father and grandfather, Oscar (Michael Genet), seen principally at age 72, the resident of a senior living community of some unspecified sort, and at earlier ages in flashback, is a retired blues man, a guitarist and singer who followed his career out the door of his family home, leaving behind a smart, loving wife Olivia (Denise Burse). Olivia’s life is largely destroyed by the abandonment, and the destruction is magnified by what happens upon Oscar’s return from the road. Then Oscar repeats the abandonment act by a moment of total irresponsibility regarding his young grandson Marcus (Sheldon Best), when Oscar’s daughter Darlene (Chandra Thomas) most needs him to help her.

Because these characters are all African American, this show has the potential to explore dramatically how the effects of missing fatherdom play out in that community. My companion watching the play, who happened to be black, certainly found it resonant in that regard, although I was not convinced. Of course, the issue of the absent dad is not exclusive to black society or to dramas about black characters. Paternal abdication of one kind or another can be found in the works of Eugene O’Neill, Oscar Hammerstein and Arthur Miller, to name just a few white playwrights who have addressed it. But every community has its own way of experiencing the issue, and can say legitimately different things about it.

Unfortunately, I cannot honestly report I saw much profundity in what was said here. We learn next to nothing about Oscar’s need to walk out the door, where it came from, why he yields to it so willingly and thoughtlessly, why he is so stubbornly resistant to his family’s promptings to man up, stick around, and step up to the plate on occasion. We likewise learn nothing about his equally stubborn adherence to a world-view in which it is his absolute right, whenever he deigns to return, to have his wife waiting exactly as he left her, or why he cannot even bring his mind to accept the finality of her death. It would seem that his eagerness to leave initially was tied up with some totally unrealistic expectations about what life entitled him to – in short, that he was spectacularly foolish even by the standards of foolish youth – but that hypothesis is hardly developed.

This also would have been a good place to illustrate or at least talk about the incidents of and the alienation bred by a musician’s road life (subject of a thousand popular songs by musicians afflicted with anomie or braggadocio), but there’s hardly a clue here, except for a remark by the aged Oscar to his grandson suggesting there were many women attracted to him. The attractions of that life might have made the character’s behavior more comprehensible.

Instead, what we have is a very creaky interplay with the grandson’s story. To start with the obvious, when a playwright named Marcus Gardley creates a character his own age named Marcus, you can pretty much rule out coincidence. When the playwright named Marcus then gives an interview to the dramaturg in which he talks about the inspiration for the play being the correspondence of his grandparents and the memories of family members including himself, you know you are deep in heart of autobiography-land. Not surprisingly, Gardley’s interest in his own development is strong, and one can see the elements of a separate interesting play in the story of that development. But it’s on display in this play, for which it is entirely too strong, forcing upon dance of the holy ghosts scenes and themes that distract from and are at odds with the story of the missing blues man father.

Specifically, Marcus grows up gay and fatherless and grandfatherless. The grandfatherless part works here, even though the additional abandonment by his Oscar is presented in only one incident. The gay part does not work as well, because it is very confusingly rolled out. In Act I, there is a flashback, very amusingly done, to a grade school-age incident in which Marcus tries to flirt with a girl, but finds himself far more motivated by a countervailing protectiveness of his 64-pack of Crayolas than by romantic feelings. This could easily be taken as an amusing speed-bump on the road to heterosexuality rather than a leading indicator of contrary tendencies. It is not until Act II that the adult Marcus declares himself sexually, although there have been enough mannerisms in Marcus’ appearances from the first so that his gayness does not come as a great surprise.

But the interplay with the story of the grandfather gets in the way. The story with the grade-school girl (Jasmine Carmichael) seems at first to be laid before us because it happens as the incident of Oscar’s neglect of Marcus is unfolding. But it takes on so much interest of its own, it robs the consequences of Oscar’s neglectfulness of almost any dramatic sense of urgency.

And the Act II declaration is worse. It comes out in an amusingly presented scene in which grandfather and grandson are in an automobile together, and Oscar, who has been putting two and two together, asks Marcus about it. Of course, Oscar lacks both subtlety and understanding, and cannot discuss it in any way that does not drive Marcus crazy. Of course, he comes out with old-fashioned notions of the causes of homosexuality: the absence of strong fathers and the influence of domineering mothers. Of course Marcus is scornful – but Marcus the playwright has set this dialogue in the midst of a play in which Marcus the character is bereft of a father or a grandfather and is raised by a strong mother. The dramatic evidence of the play would seem to support the very theories that Marcus the character and surely Marcus the playwright would reject. But there is no articulated or enacted response to Oscar’s pop-psych except Marcus’ tapping foot communicating his irritation.

The eventual dramatic crisis of the play, however, returns us to the absent-father focus. The issue to be resolved in the final frame is whether Oscar can bring himself to turn up at a funeral, an act which might have some redemptive effect. As it happened, I saw this play three days after taking in Motown: The Musical on Broadway, where the dramatic action, such as it is, comes down to whether Berry Gordy, Jr. will attend a tribute show or not. And I had the same sense of “oh, come on, it’s too obvious” as to how both dilemmas were resolved. Be that as it may, you don’t fill much of the hole of years of neglect simply by turning up at a funeral. At best, it’s potentially a start.

Gardley was a poet before he was a playwright. Critics commonly remark of Gardley that his lines are fraught with poetry. And much of dance is quite evocative, but much of it also less than clear, and the language is partly to blame. The problem is exacerbated by the way some of the minor roles are introduced (four of them played by Doug Eskew), without sufficient detail to make clear quickly who they are or what they are even doing in this story.  Particularly in a tale not told in consecutive order, any lack of clarity can be a problem. In post-show conversations with two other members of the audience, we each found ourselves trying to put together what had “really” happened in one place or another.

To be sure, Gardley calls this “a play on memory,” in what must be an allusion to The Glass Menagerie, another bildungsroman by and about a gay playwright. Tennessee Williams stated in the introduction to that play: “The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated…” One must assume Gardley meant to appropriate this explanation and the artistic license it claims. Hence what “really” happened is allowed to be elusive. But it cannot be elusive in the manner of theater of the absurd. At some point there must be a “there there,” whether we can see it clearly or not. And what is there matters. So Gardley cannot afford as much obscurity as he might like.

If I am reconstructing the production history correctly, this play premiered in 2006 at the Yale Repertory Theater, and has gone unproduced since. From reviews of the earlier incarnation, it is plain the play has been tinkered with in the intervening seven years, and that the tinkering has probably improved it. But the need for further tinkering remains. Personally, I’d sever the gay issues (putting them in a separate play) and flesh out the fatherhood material. But maybe there are other ways to solve the play’s problems. What seems clear to me, however, is that in its current state, the play is not, as other reviewers have suggested, a triumph, and it is not yet ready for its New York closeup. Instead, it is a solid work in progress, still in need of major pruning and revision.

That is not to say that Centerstage should not have produced it; indeed Centerstage is precisely the kind of venue it needs, a thoroughly professional stage traditionally committed to new works as well as classics, which will assemble a cast and crew fully capable of taking a good but flawed play on a complete shakedown cruise.

This cast, and crew – and the direction of Kwame Kwei-Armah, the theater’s Artistic Director – are unexceptionable, as one would expect at Centerstage. And they keep what might be a somewhat unsatisfying evening of theater far above that level.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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