The Ubuntu Theater version of Marcus Gardley’s Dance of the Holy Ghosts: A Play on Memory is set at a memorial service. The production, which will open on July 17, will take place in the sanctuary space at Oakland City Church (2735 MacArthur Blvd.). As audience members fill the pews, a gospel choir will welcome them with Black spirituals. Then, a tangle of memories will unravel in the aisles and on stage, telling the story of a young man named Marcus and his grandfather, Oscar, who was never there for him.
Dance of the Holy Ghosts is a dreamy play, at times offering multiple realities without affirming which one is true — like unreliable recollections. The narrative jumps through time as well, set in the spectrum between the Fifties and 2005. The script, the stage direction, and elaborate stage production are dramatically poetic, thick with emotion and flowering with potential meaning. The dialogue is in a distinct vernacular that finds its roots in the asphalt of Oakland’s streets. The playwright, Marcus Gardley, grew up in West Oakland, and that’s where the memory scenes in the play take place.
Today, Gardley is an acclaimed playwright, appreciated for plays such as Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, which was commissioned by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players theater company in 2005. Dance of the Holy Ghosts premiered in 2006 at Yale Repertory Theatre, just two years after Gardley graduated from the Yale School of Drama with a masters in fine arts. The play was also put on in Baltimore in 2013. But its East Coast productions were met with lukewarm critical reception. Critics at The New York Times and Washington Post agreed that there wasn’t a strong enough narrative holding it together — the poetic gaps were too large for the audience to fill in on their own.
But when a friend gave Michael Moran the play last year, he fell in love with it. Moran is one of the organizers of Ubuntu Theater, a young theater company that puts on pay-what-you-can plays in unconventional spaces in Oakland, focusing on work relevant to contemporary social discussions. Moran was taken by the vivid setting of the play, but he didn’t have the money to put it on the way it was written. So he reached out to Gardley and asked if he could simplify the set, but channel the poetic stage direction into a narrator role, as well as add in a gospel choir to help tell the story and ground the play in song. Gardley not only offered his blessing to make the changes, but gifted Ubuntu the rights to the script for free.
Rather than traditional seasons, Ubuntu puts on an annual summer festival called “Breaking Chains,” which the Express reported on last fall (see “Breaking Chains,” 9/3/2014). Last year, Moran directed Dance of the Holy Ghosts with just three weeks of preparation. It was the first time the play had been performed in Oakland. It opened to a crowd of approximately 40 people and closed with a crowd of around 120. “It really felt like there was an audience for it,” said Moran in a recent interview, remarking on how word had quickly spread.
This year, Gardley has offered the rights to Ubuntu for free again, and Moran and his cast of twenty are taking more time to prepare. Moran is working largely with undergraduates from Laney and Chabot colleges, as well as other actors who auditioned. The majority are Oakland natives. A few weeks before showtime, Gardley visited a rehearsal and the young cast spoke with him late into the night, sharing the ways that the story felt personal to them. Moran is convinced that Gardley gave them the rights because he wanted the play to reach Oakland audiences. Perhaps that’s to whom it makes the most sense.
“I find there’s something particularly moving about Oakland and the poetry of the piece and the mythic quality of the piece being integrated together because it feels so large and grand and deeply moving,” said Moran. “And I think, across the country, Oakland sometimes has a reputation, I don’t know, for violence or something like that, and I think this play transcends that quite a bit.”