Watch: 2018 Season overview with Philippa and Eric

Grab a cuppa and watch the video below to get a sneak peek into Philippa’s insights in the first of a video series diving deep into the dramaturgical themes of next summer’s plays!

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The War of the Roses… What in the World?

by Philippa Kelly

Where do leaders come from? Are they measured by a moral compass, or are they, as Richard III suggests, bred from a psychopathology where crooked backs make crooked minds? Or do we judge them by what they accomplish?

If the third premise were true, the bloody and tempestuous period of the War of the Roses would slide and disappear into the Lancaster defeat of the Yorkists that closed out the decades-long brutality between two feuding families, merging into the relative harmony and prosperity of Tudor England. But the sum of human lives is measured by more than lands conquered and victories achieved: it’s known by the bitter loss of sons; by the thwarted ambitions of mothers; by the passion and lust that can drive human beings together in the most perilous of circumstances. Such passions, ambitions, and rancors mark the War of the Roses as depicted by Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays.

While the War of the Roses had ended in 1487, a century before Shakespeare began writing, audiences still thirsted for the revenge that had since been prohibited by Church and State. The bloodied knives piercing iron mail; the heads sliced from offending shoulders; the treachery, duplicity, ambition and regret: these characterize Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, all of them performed during the very early 1590s before the playwright turned 30.

Shakespeare clearly wrote the three Henry VI plays, together with Richard III, as a tetralogy, to be performed consecutively (although Henry VI Part I was probably written after Parts II and III). Certain characters in the Henry plays close out one play and open another, while the close of Henry VI Part III clearly beckons Richard III.  Furthermore, in an electric exchange in Richard III, two grieving mothers look back bitterly at the Henry VI sequence in which they’ve witnessed the destruction of each others’ sons (and psyches) by opposing families. Richard III is often performed alone: but it is a special thrill to place it in concert with the three abridged plays that Shakespeare so clearly wrote to precede it.

In Shakespeare’s tetralogy we get a world where, in an absence of ideology, human beings strive to convince us of the merits of their own choices and motivations. We get a world where “fake news” is not a modern phenomenon, but an age-old method by which characters exploit each others’ ignorance. And it’s a world where the French threat is represented by two of the strongest women in all of Shakespeare—the driving honesty of Joan la Purcell (better known as Joan of Arc) and the subtle manipulations of Margaret of Anjou, a passionate lover, and then a passionate mother, acting always at the expense of the husband to whom she was sold at the age of 15. And the War of the Roses perhaps suggests to us that even in a godless universe, human beings still seek gods; and we still seek to know ourselves amidst an array of pretenses.

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Announcing our 2018 Season!

Dear friends,

It’s always such a pleasure standing in front of you, looking out at the sea of faces that make up our Cal Shakes family, inviting you into our theater, into our stories. Stories, in their way, teach us how to be human. They teach us our morality, our sense of right and wrong, how to love, how to hate, how to live. And as we come to our final show in a season that saw box office records broken, I’m excited to reaffirm our commitment to telling vital stories for these interesting times.

Since I arrived at Cal Shakes, we’ve taken a good hard look at what it means to be a classical theater for the 21st Century. We’ve considered the fiscal challenges of producing professional theater in the Bay Area. We’ve listened to many of your concerns over increasingly hectic summers and the erratic weather of spring and autumn. We’ve heard from many of our most ardent supporters that Cal Shakes should always be BOLD theater—big enough to fill the vast outdoors. We wanted new ways to celebrate the unique experience of the Bruns, be they return engagements of popular productions or extraordinary events that we couldn’t pass up (more on all that later). I’m excited to share that for 2018 we’ll be creating a concentrated subscription season filled with the epic and eventful work so many of you crave, of scale and scope and audacious, uncompromising vision—a true summer at the Bruns, anchored by three plays from June to September, each a vital story that speaks as much to who we are as to who we’ve been.

• First up, a literary classic re-imagined: Quixote, a sparkling new adaptation by Octavio Solis based on Cervantes’ Spanish Golden Age masterpiece but conceived anew, setting La Mancha along the modern-day Texas-Mexico border and filled with flights of fancy and Tejano tunes.

• Next up, a contemporary riff on the medieval morality play: Everybody, by acclaimed playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), plumbing the depths of the human condition with surprising humor, heart, grace, and dancing skeletons.

• Our season closes with a Shakespearean event of epic proportions: our take on The War of the Roses, a monumental evening of theater spanning four of Shakespeare’s histories—Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III—a fast-paced, far-ranging, vividly theatrical depiction of two powerful families—the Lancasters and the York—and their decades-long fight for the English throne.

Whether you’ve been with us for decades or are joining us for the very first time, thank you for being with us this summer—for the shared laughter and tears and song and celebration, creating community with our artists under the sky. Join us for our 2018 season. We’ve set a big table, and it wouldn’t be the same without you.

See you next season,

Eric Ting

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Artistic Learning: our teachers are students, too

We nurture a culture of learning where we are both teacher and student.

All of our teaching artists are theater professionals with a passion for education. Our two-year professional development initiative funded by the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust—the first we are aware of in the Bay Area—offered paid trainings in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Childhood Development; Working with Students on the Autism Spectrum; Lesson Planning; and several classes on ways to teach Shakespeare to age groups ranging from elementary school through high school.

The reason we make this investment is partly to do with our unique approach to bringing theater into schools: our Teaching Artists partner with teachers to integrate theater-making and learning about a Shakespeare play right in the classroom. This way every student—even those who would never consider signing up for a Theater class—have the opportunity to develop their own creative voice. Every year we get comments from students remarking on their initial reluctance at the beginning of the process and their immense enjoyment by the end. So, we ask a lot more of our teaching artists, and we provide them with more support in navigating the sometimes challenging environments they encounter in classrooms.

Last month we hosted our final training of the two-year initiative. After attending previous rounds of training over the past few years, teaching artists requested one with a hands-on focus, so we partnered with Circle Up Education, an organization whose primary focus is Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training for Classroom Teachers. The five-hour training was extremely well received by our Teaching Artists:

“I learned a tremendous amount from the training that I will be able to apply immediately in the classroom!”

“Training with Cal Shakes is always a reminder of the fierce and compassionate family of teaching artists in our network. It almost doesn’t matter what we’ve gathered to learn; we resonate and wriggle; we inspire one another. But the diversity and inclusion sessions this year have felt especially visceral and relevant to our work with youth. I think that each of us is always hoping that maybe it’s now; maybe this will be the generation that grows up where Shakespeare belongs to every body in every community. Maybe we get to be on the foundation floor—dug into the dirt of that rebuilding work.”   

“More trainings like this please!”

Developing Self-Awareness & Relationship Building Practices–Enhancing Teaching & Learning in Diverse Classroom Communities was developed with the support of the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Trust as the final session of a two-year initiative funded by the Trust that has training our entire cadre of Teaching Artists.

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American Life in Art: Sam Shepard

by Maggie Kissinger

“The reason I began writing plays was the hope of extending the sensation of play (as in ‘kid’) on into adult life. If ‘play’ becomes ‘labor,’ why play?” —Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard was one of America’s most prolific playwrights, penning some of the country’s most haunting and beloved plays. His body of work spanned nearly half a century, transforming the American theater landscape by questioning its very nature and confronting values that have been immortalized through myth. No playwright has managed to put more of American culture on-stage before or since.
Shepard got his start in the Off-Off Broadway movement that began in the 1960s. This revolutionary scene was perfect for Shepard, for he was not the kind of playwright who followed convention for the sake of it. He demanded that theater accept him on his own terms. He became a cult figure in the OOB movement, which was known for producing work that presented an often nightmarish America where myth collides with reality.
Despite his indifference to commercial theater, Shepard won 10 Obie Awards, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Buried Child, and the 1986 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for A Lie of the Mind. Shepard also appeared in over 30 films, some in acclaimed roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).

The acclaimed actor and playwright died on July 27, 2017 in his home in Kentucky due to complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Maggie Kissinger is a dramaturg and teaching artist living in New York City. She served as an Artistic Learning Intern with the Cal Shakes Conservatory this past summer.
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2018 Season: Frequently Asked Questions

It’s true, we’ve announced our 2018 Subscription Season, with two new classics and an epic Shakepeare event. We’ve enjoyed talking to people as they learn about next year’s plans, and have noticed there are a few questions we’re getting a lot, so here they are in one quick FAQ:

Why is the subscription season only three plays next year?
Several reasons!

  • • FLEXIBILITY: We wanted to carve out time in the season to be able to take advantage of unique opportunities—such as bringing back popular shows from past seasonor producing short-run events at the Bruns. (Stay tuned for more information about that as it unfolds!)
  • COSTS: The costs of producing theater in the Bay Area continue to rise. We are opting to produce three plays more fully rather than having to cut corners to produce four.
  • WEATHER: We are hopeful that producing a season during the true summer months will provide a more pleasant (i.e. less cold) experience for our patrons.

Will you always produce only one Shakespeare play?
No; each season is unique. This season we are especially excited by our Shakespeare event, The War of the Roses. Act 1 spans Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3 (the first time the trilogy will be presented in the history of Cal Shakes) and will give new facets and depth to the characters in Act 2, which covers Richard III. The War of the Roses is epic Shakespeare!

Do 3-play subscriptions cost the same as last year’s 4-play subscription?
Absolutely not! You will notice subscriptions cost significantly less this year because subscribers are only paying for three plays, not four.


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Ask Philippa: Measure for Measure Edition

Measure for Measure was written in 1604 at a pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s career. The playwright was 40 and had just finished writing a long line of comedies that explored complex issues of sex, marriage, and personal identity, and great tragedies—Othello, Macbeth, Lear—were in gestation. Measure falls somewhere between them, mixing the darkness of a brutal change of regime with the eventual relief of a comic resolution: along the way, it asks many questions and does not provide easy answers.

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at, or post below to ask her a question.

Measure for Measure continues through September 8. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

Posted in 2017 Season, Ask Philippa, Main Stage, Measure for Measure | 4 Comments

black odyssey Student Night

Cal Shakes received an overwhelming and positive response from local educators who had seen black odyssey—teachers who then inquired about Student Matinees, who wanted copies of the script to teach in their own class, and those who just wanted to find a way to share this play with their students. Jessica Hom, an English teacher at Aspire College Prep, told us: “When I saw black odyssey on my own, I knew right away that I wanted my students to see the show. The play shows complex Black characters finding strength in the resilience of their ancestors. It gives my students a chance to see representations of their own community on stage, and does so with a lot of humor, music, and joy.”

We got so many inquiries, in fact, that we added special programming, including an Interactive Study Guide (usually created for our Shakespeare plays to accompany our Student Discovery Matinees) and a Student Night. Over 100 young people and their chaperones joined us on August 29 from Diablo Valley College, Richmond College Prep, Skyline High, Carondolet High, Black Diamond High, Oakland Tech, Aspire College Prep, and Boy Scout Troop 409. black odyssey dramaturg Lisa Evans led a pre-show discussion with activities and storytelling, engaging over 60 students before the show.

Lisa Evans and students before black odyssey; photo by Jay Yamada.

The evening had “enormous impact on my students!” shares Zia Grossman-Vendrillo of Richmond College Prep. “For some of them this was the first play they had ever seen and now I think the bar is set too high! They really enjoyed it and seemed to follow along very well. It was also wonderful to have some of the students attend with their parents—I think it was a really special night for them. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to take my students of color to see a play with artists of color performing such an incredible piece with such a resonant message.”

Lisa Evans and students before black odyssey; photo by Jay Yamada.

Heidi Goen-Salter, of Diablo Valley College’s Umoja Program, said of the evening, “It had a powerful impact. The students absolutely loved it. They’ve been talking about it since then—remembering scenes and lines, asking about how to get involved with something similar, talking about taking drama classes, etc. And there was definitely a bonding that happened as well since the students were from several different cohorts and didn’t all know each other beforehand. But after breaking bread together, sharing ideas in the pre-show talk, shivering under rented blankets, experiencing the marvelous performance, and crowding into each others’ cars afterwards—we’re bonded!”

Hom’s students also loved it. “At intermission, one of my students was simply distraught. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he couldn’t believe it was over. When I told him that it was only intermission, and that we had another act to go, he was so happy that he started jumping around. I also know that my students really connected to the show emotionally; I could hear them laughing, and affirming, and even crying at the end.”

Students at black odyssey.

“My students kept on talking about how relevant the work was to them,” said Ena Dallas from Oakland Tech. “They communicated to me that seeing such seasoned actors perform amazing story telling based in African-American history was life-changing for them.”

Artistic Learning programs such as this are not possible without significant help from donors, many of whom are audience members who give small amounts after every show. Every teacher we spoke to confirmed that they would not have been able to bring their students without subsidized tickets—we offer over 5,000 free or deeply discounted tickets every season. “Thank you and thank all the generous donors who made those tickets affordable, says Goen-Salter. “When I first investigated and saw tickets in the $50-$70 range, I didn’t go any further since I knew we couldn’t afford that price. But your willingness to work with us…made all the difference!”‘

If ensuring that students have this kind of access to theater is important to you, you can play a large role in helping. We’ve already raised almost 90% of our goal for the year, with only $10,000 left to go. Help us get there!


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Roots: music and ancestors in “black odyssey”

In the months and weeks leading up to rehearsal, I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a few rehearsals for black odyssey. It’s going to be filled with fantastic music: powerful percussion by J. Alphonse Nicholson, who plays Ulysses, and blues, jazz, traditional songs and spirituals sung a capella by the cast and guided by Vocal Composers Linda Tillery (Music Director) and Molly Holm (Vocal Ensemble Director). At the very beginning of the rehearsal process about a month ago, I had the pleasure of sitting with director Eric Ting and vocal composers Molly Holm and Linda Tillery for a Q&A discussion. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

black odyssey plays through September 3.
More info and tickets here.

Want to hear some of the songs from black odyssey? Listen to our Spotify Playlist, here!


Eric Ting: Can you talk about where you are in the process right now and what this journey has been like so far? This is not your first time working with Marcus, right?

Molly Holm: It’s my third.

Linda Tillery: This is my first collaboration with Marcus, but I have seen a couple of his productions. I was reminded today that it was Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi that really piqued my interest in Marcus’ work, because I loved the integration of the music and the acting.

Eric: Can you speak more about what you see in Marcus’ work that draws you to it?

MH: I just want to remind Linda that we brought her in as a consultant on This World in a Woman’s Hands [at Shotgun Players in 2009] because—

LT: —What she said

MH: —because he was asking for some roots music and I wanted to make sure it was—

Eric: This is the Richmond project, right?

MH: Right, so Linda came in and did workshops with the singers and we went through a bunch of different songs, and then we picked

LT: —”Ain’t No More Cane”,

MH: —gospel, spiritual songs.

LT: One of the things that I feel from Marcus’ work is that I connect with him as a child of “immigrants.” And when I say immigrants, I mean Black parents that make their way from the South to the West Coast. So there’s certain ways that he expresses himself that seem very familiar to me. And the fact that his father is a minister, and he himself seems to have a really close relationship with this music. He’s not a visitor, he’s very at home with this traditional stuff. I like that. So there’s an old soul that lives within him as well as this very avant-garde contemporary writer. He has a great sense of humor: renaming Poseidon as Paw Sidin: I love that about him.

Eric: So when Marcus sits down and says “Who I really want to work with on this play is Linda Tillery and Molly Holm because there’s this nut in this work that we haven’t cracked yet, and it’s got to do with the music, with the role that this music plays in this play.” How do you see music living in this piece, in black odyssey?

MH: I just think it’s just there, you know? To me it was just a perfect place for you, Linda, to really bring forth everything you know. All your musical knowledge and repertoire. It’s like someone just made the nicest garden plot with tons of compost and all the watering, it’s just the perfect planting ground.

LT: Yeah, it is, but I also think that I see both of us contributing in our own ways tremendously to this production. Because we know each other it’s so much easier to get to where we wanna go. We’re not fighting each other. We have conversations and discourse about what something is, and maybe we have a difference of opinion, but we’re not fighting, we’re not working against each other, which is really great. It’s a breath of fresh air.

ET: For me, the music in this piece is really an expression of the spirit. There’s something about how when I read this play and I think about it unfolding, the role of music is as much a thing that unites all of these people together across time and across space. That’s just sort of in my head, how the language of the music becomes representative of these ancestors that Ulysses is calling forth at the very beginning. There’s something about music that is that, especially the roots music that you’ve been introducing in this. There’s something about that that’s a call to community. Can you talk a bit about that?

LT: If you look at the music over time, we’re calling forth people from cotton fields, calling forth people who may have bought their first car, how they got that car, because for me, I’m using my parents, their experience in this country is kind of a catalyst for how I move the song—”ok, now my mother told me that when she lived in Texas, things were this way”—and so I think some of the music reflects that. If you ask a person who is, say, in their 70s or 80s, did you have an “Uncle Bubba” who had to go to jail because “Mr. Charley” did such and such? “Pretty Black Woman” reflects that: bunch of guys who are in prison, they’re trying to pass the time of day. They create these songs, often in this music, this prison music, the subject matter revolves around a woman and her body: that seems to be what gets these men working. Then we get the spirituals, that’s the most enduring music, the spirituals in this play. Those are the songs that are going to evoke the most emotion out of the audience. The Motown medley will be fun, but the deep reflection is going to come from “Didn’t it Rain” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

ET: The music that came to us in the first draft is virtually unrecognizable now. The song selection that Marcus originally introduced through the script, we’ve kind of just let go of. So the process of selecting and curating the music for this: has there been some touchstone you’ve been using, or has it been about responding to the what Marcus is describing as the moment so that at some level the genre becomes part of that dialogue?

Marcus Gardley, Molly Holm, and Linda Tillery at musical workshops for “black odyssey” in March. Photo by Eric Ting.

LT: Marcus is the catalyst. I just throw it out there, the couple of times he’s been here, I throw it out there and wait for his response. I think some things hit him harder than others. I kind of watch his reactions. Sometimes he’ll be very vocal about what he wants, which is nice. But the problem is we have enough music for 2 or 3 plays! And it’s all good music. It’s hard to stop! It’s really hard to stop. Because for me, I’m having certain visceral responses as we move through this process, so there’s the objective me, then there’s the me that knows how important this music is in my life, in my day-to-day existence and the day-to-day existence of many people. It makes me want to be here.

ET: Can you talk about the importance of music in your life?

…LT: [speechless for a bit, then she makes a face]

…AC: I’m putting that in italics, “deep eye roll” [laughter]

LT: It’s just a thing that has helped me make my way through 68 years of life on the Planet Earth. Most of the time joyfully, but you know, there’s been some pain. But I can’t see living without music. Not only my own creativity, but I enjoy the creativity of other people. I’m a good audience. If I’m sitting and I’m listening to somebody and they’re doing something well, I get so joyful. It’s like, wow! Look at that! Listen to that! It’s my soul food.

ET: The act of making music, just in the time I’ve been in the room with you and the actors, it’s become so central to my understanding and experience of this play. Even though this idea that the making of the music is somehow the journey. How does one build a chorus of singers, an ensemble of makers in this sense?

MH: I think it’s this idea of real time. Being in the room, with the people, with the singers, with the personalities, with the actors—we haven’t even seen them act except their audition tapes and I already know how good they’re going to be. But just from the feeling in the room of who they bring, just arriving to rehearse with them. Once we open our mouths together, no matter what we’re singing, really, there’s a musical persona that comes through. It comes through everybody individually, but you put people together, and they’re singing together, and there’s this other thing kind of like the sum is bigger than the parts. What I’ve learned over the years, in the times I’ve been around Marcus or the times I’ve worked on his material, is there’s this freedom inside of what he’s doing. He’s so poetic so there’s this fluidity; he’s not rigid about stuff. He’s laying down some pretty heavy stuff but I just feel like every part he puts down, he’s leaving room for it to flower in whatever direction it takes itself, so he leaves that space. Just when we have a phone conversation, any time we leave with him, he’s always like “I LOVE it!” And I believe him!

LT: HE’s a good audience!

MH: I believe him! But part of that is a spirit that allows for an evolution of something. And we must’ve driven you crazy saying “No, we gotta have everybody here, we gotta have everyone.” Because it’s the life of each person and the life that they bring that makes the whole. And Linda and I know that, either from working together in groups or working separately in our own ensembles, that there is a life that comes from an ensemble of singers. I feel so touched to be here. The first time I worked with Marcus was Love is a Dreamhouse…circle singing and some chants…for This World in a Woman’s Hands. I don’t know how, but Marcus understood how I worked for the music that I like to do. It comes out of a jazz tradition, it comes out of working with Bobby McFerrin in Voicestra, the circle singing, it comes out of this whole spirit of improvisation, you know, creating things on the spot, and so we had a year and a half of workshops with the singers and Marcus coming in and saying what he wanted. And he hadn’t even written it—he was writing the piece as we went. So that was a marvelous thing, and I think what’s happened here, I think he liked all that, right? And I liked it…

ET: And he asked you to do it in a month and a half!

MH: …but he got introduced to Linda, too, and I just feel super privileged to be here, to work with Linda, you, the company, the actors. I just want to remind people I’m not black and… [everyone laughs]

ET: Neither am I!

MH: Linda knows I say this a lot! But you know, I love the music. And we have crossover in the music through jazz. I just so happen as a jazz vocalist to have a deep love of roots music. I don’t have the knowledge that Linda has but I have the love of it. Talking about roots music, by the grace of God I got to learn North Indian Raga singing, I mean, I got to study it; I can’t say I learned it, but that has deep roots, we don’t even know how much that connection is between Africa and India, right?

LT: Right.

MH: John Santos was talking about that at SF Jazz, that’s a whole ethnomusicology study in itself, but the music itself has roots that come from different places. I think that improvisation opens up those cross-cultural connections even more. And then you add into that if someone has the spirit to embrace that or to allow it. Like the spirit you [Linda] had to be like, “Marcus wanted to do this, ok, let’s just dive in and go for it.” That’s a beautiful thing.

ET: Marcus has such a deep love for this community, for the Bay Area; I think that’s one of the things he was most excited about, on top of working with the two of you, it was about being able to bring this play here, and to really set it in the milieu of the Oakland and the Oakland Hills and the East Bay. What does it mean to be a Bay Area artist for you?

LT: Let me jump in there right away because I had an experience recently that was very eye-opening for me. This past Sunday I performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and the stage was set up on Steiner Street. I grew up in that area in the Western Addition. And I hadn’t performed in SF in a long while and I just kind of looked around and was like, “oh my god,” it was almost like the heavens opened up or something, it was a familiarity with place, and there were people there who came up to say hello, whom I’d known for 45 years, you can’t beat that. Now, my experience as an East Bay musician is that I found the Funk over here. I learned the Blues in San Francisco, because of my parents and my aunts and uncles, they came from Texas, they listened to the Blues, they loved the Blues, and so I love the Blues too! You had to, you couldn’t live at my house if you didn’t love the Blues! So then I moved over here, and that’s where I learned Funk and Jazz, and my first ten years in the East Bay was spent hanging out with the best East Bay jazz musicians there were, because I wanted to learn. One of the things I wanted to learn was how to listen to that music. I never could figure it out. I remember listening to Earl Garner, Concerts by the Sea, it’s a very famous recording, and when it got to the improvisation I’m like, “what is he doing? He’s just going [she scats a few lines]…” So I wanted to understand, oh, there’s form, and no, he’s playing over the form, he’s just not playing the melody, he’s expressing himself. So this has been the place where for me, the greater amount of development happened here in the East Bay. And also politically, I really grew into activism living here in the East Bay. All kinds of stuff started here and flourished, and grew. In the early days of the Panthers I used to play at rallies, things for librarians and gay rights, I mean, I never knew any of that, I never experienced activism when I was growing up in San Francisco, because I didn’t come from a politically active household. Not in the way that we would understand it now, but I think back on things that my mother said to me: she had a sense of activism, she just didn’t know that she did. But, for me, now, the music and how I live my life, and what I project in the world are inseparable, we’re a package. We all come together. So that’s what it means to me.

MH: For me, I’ve always lived in the East Bay once I moved down here. But I grew up in Oregon, and it was a little more conservative up there. But it just so happened that my mom loved jazz. So my whole growing up in the living room, being played all the time, was Duke Ellington and Count Basey, and Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Hodges, and Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Lester Young, Joe Williams, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus, that was just part of the living room set. So here I was in this fairly white community but I had the black music coming in, filling all of our ears in my family. And then when I moved down here to go to school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; I was out at Mills for a year and then I quit, and then I went down to Laney College. I went to Alameda Community College and Laney College. And that turned me around. That’s when I decided, ok, I’m not going to be a doctor. [laughs] I wasn’t doing well in chemistry. And down there, Ed Kelly was teaching. And I’d go by myself out to East Oakland and I go hear Ed Kelly and Mr. Majors.

LT: Mr. Majors, yes.

MH: They bring guest artists to Laney, Mary Lou Williams, piano, Earl Father Hines, it was amazing. One of the first times I went to Keystone Korner, I considered East Bay and San Francisco tied together by the music, and Keystone Korner at that time they would book a group from Tuesday through Sunday. So you could go over many nights if you loved the group. I heard Art Ensemble Chicago when I was 18, and that just did me in. I was gone. I didn’t even know there was music like that. My mom was listening to more straight ahead jazz but when I heard Art Ensemble Chicago, I just couldn’t believe it. And then I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how could I do that vocally. I’m still trying to figure it out!

ET: One last question: we talk a lot about Roots music in the work that you’re doing, and Marcus talks a lot about the journey of Ulysses in this play as a journey through his blood and through his ancestry, his roots. What does the idea of roots mean to you?

LT: Roots to me, right now, is Africa. If you’re asking me what are the roots of all the music I listen to, I would start in Africa with those roots going deep in the ground, and then there’s branches and there’s leaves, and then there’s seeds that drop down and new trees start to grow, but you know roots: fundamental. Essential. And unfortunately we don’t in this country, acknowledge often enough what the roots of our western music is, what it is, where it comes from, what it’s about. It’s really quite simple. All the academics know this, and people talk about it, pay it lip service, but because of money for music, things get kind of convoluted. For example you’ll have Joe Cocker. All he did was copy Ray Charles. That’s exactly what he did but for a certain group of people that was safe. That was safety for him, it was safer for THEM, safer than acknowledging that Ray Charles inspired Joe Cocker and essentially made it possible for him to earn a living. And it happens all the time. It’s important not to get consumed with anger about it, but to just move forward and keep telling your truth, keep trying to represent the music with authenticity, and hope that there are some people out there who will appreciate it. That’s roots to me.

MH: I concur. What I might add to it is when I think of roots I also think of history. And Linda and I have had many conversations about this, that acknowledging the history—you don’t have to be a historian but you certainly have to pay respect to where the music is coming from. My experience has been, because getting a degree in music was so heavily western European classical music. And there’s some great music there. But when people are telling you that’s the only music…it’s hard. That was happening not long after I heard Art Ensemble Chicago. Don’t try to shove something down my throat and tell me that this is the only thing because that’s where people with money, where a certain elitism is happening. And don’t even disrespect that music, by elevating it so high, as if it weren’t open to the other music. Rosco Mitchell, who teaches at Mills, he talks a lot about this. What do you call jazz, you call it free jazz, you call it avant garde—he says, “I call it music.” He’s not gonna break it down. It’s music. But politically, and economically, it has been broken down, and it’s broken, and we’re trying to repair it. The money has not followed the right people. Pay respect. Give credit where credit is due.

LT: Yeah, because no one group of people owns the music: once you release it into the air, it’s there. But if you’re gonna sing Hound Dog, don’t give the credit to Elvis Presley, let’s talk about Willie Mae Thornton, because that’s her tune.

MH: This can get very contentious, even as a jazz vocalist, I have had people say in front of me, they’ll refer to classical music as “legitimate” singing. It’s like, I’m not illegitimate, ok. I know my business. It’s a big thing that has to be interrupted, the issues have to be raised and talked about, and when someone makes a comment like that, you have to interrupt it.

LT: I always say, you really wish you could sing soulfully! That’s one of the reasons you wanna put this music down: you can’t do it. However, I will say that Renee Fleming is breaking the barriers these days! She’s put out a pop album and she sounds like a pop singer. She’s retired from opera and she’s focusing on pop music. And she listens to Kurt Elling, I heard her say that. Now whether you like him or not, for a classical singer to say that she listens to a jazz singer, I’m like, wow. My respect for you has grown exponentially. And conversely, I’ve had people who consider themselves to be jazz aficionados really dump on R&B, “Oh that’s just R&B.” No there’s no “just” anything—it’s either good or bad. Duke Ellington knew that, he said it, “What’s wrong with the rest of these eggheads.” You do what you do, and you do what you do, thing is, do your best, that’s all I say.


Linda Tillery is a prominent figure in the world of music. As a vocalist, percussionist, producer and workshop leader she has performed and recorded with leading musicians across several musical genres. A San Francisco native, she began her singing career in the 1960s with the psychedelic/soul band Loading Zone. During the 1970’s Tillery became a staff musician and producer at Olivia Records, an all woman-owned and -operated label. Her self-titled 1977 recording garnered a Bay Area Music Award for Best Independently Produced Album, and to honor its 40th anniversary, she has reassembled the original band members and will be touring in the United States. Tillery has won two Bay Area Jazz Awards for Outstanding Female Vocalist and her classic children’s recording, “Shakin’ A Tailfeather,” was nominated for a Grammy. 

Linda has recorded and performed with Santana, Boz Scaggs, Ray Obiedo, Sheila E., Huey Lewis and The News, Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb and Bobby McFerrin. In 1992, she formed the Cultural Heritage Choir in order to pursue the research and performance of Sacred and Secular music of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Today the Choir includes Tillery and fellow Bay Area vocalists Rhonda Benin, Tammi Brown, Bryan Dyer, Zoe Ellis and Javier Navarrette.She has taught workshops at Stanford, Williams College, MIT, University of Cincinnati, and University of Indiana Bloomington.

Molly Holm is an unconventional singer and composer, and a director for multi-cultural vocal ensembles. For over 35 years she has explored the musical boundaries of vocal jazz improvisation through original compositions, jazz repertoire, North Indian Raga, modal tonalities and experimental, free-form pieces. Receiving her M.A. in Composition from Mills College— where she currently teaches—Molly studied with master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and composers Terry Riley and Lou Harrison. As a performer, she was a founding member of Bobby McFerrin’s original Voicestra; the featured vocalist with Terry Riley’s group, Khayal; and a singer in tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain’s SF JAZZ piece, Rapt, No Strings. Other projects have included performances with choreographer June Watanabe (E.O. 9066), George Coates Performance Works (Actual Shо̄), and collaborations in multiple ensembles with African-American Roots Music vocalist Linda Tillery. Molly’s compositions for Marcus Gardley’s multi-racial plays, Love is a Dream House in Lorin and This World in a Woman’s Hands garnered outstanding reviews; and her 2013 CD, Permission, was described as “Edgy and defiant.”


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Buried Histories: Marcus Gardley on history and black odyssey

On a Thursday evening, black odyssey playwright Marcus Gardley and dramaturg and Artistic Engagement Associate Lisa Evans connected across time and space (or in layman’s terms: had a phone call) and talked about recontextualizing texts, the tradition of oral history in black communities, and expanding understanding of black history. 

Lisa Evans:  What’s so beautiful about this play is how you’ve taken this literary archetype of a hero’s journey and portrayed it not through the traditional mythology but through the lens of delving into this buried history. What was the process like for you in reframing this classical text and recontextualizing it?

Marcus Gardley: That’s a great question. Well, you know I’m obsessed with myths and legends and [how] a group of people from a specific culture explain creation. How do they explain divinity? How do they explain why the sun revolves around the earth; why there’s a night time and a day? I think that this act of contextualizing, of telling stories so that we have beliefs is the point of art.

What I tried to do with this play is that for one, wanted to retell a story because I feel like, especially in the African American oral tradition, the retelling is actually the point. My great- grandmother always talks about this because she’s considered the griot in our family. She really talks about that the point of the story is the retelling of it. She says “when I tell a story and you re-tell it you can add your own point to it; you can add your own spin to it. Then you add a little piece to it and you make it yours.” This retelling allows for a certain generation and new way of thinking to arise.

What I love about The Odyssey is that it’s the story of a man who is essentially lost and he’s lost not necessarily because he can’t find his way but because he has inner turmoil.  It’s really [a story about] a man who’s a on a journey to self discovery. Meanwhile his wife and son are left alone and have to fend for themselves and so it’s sort of a parallel story. I really love that sort of structure in story telling where you’re waiting the whole time to see the hero, if you will, and his family reunite. For me this was sort of the perfect context to tell the story of the history of African Americans in the United States. I feel like as a culture we are a group of people who have had an immense amount of struggle [and] this ability to survive against all odds really is remarkable and is unlike any other group of people in history. I wanted to write something that both celebrated but really gave audiences a chance to sit for two hours and look at the breadth and width of this really dynamic culture because often times when people are exposed to African American culture they get a slice at a time; Frederick Douglass did this here, Harriet Tubman did this here. But I really wanted people to sit through the whole breadth and width of it.

The chorus asks you to step in [Ulysses’] shoes because this being lost and being found really reflects to me the central point of the culture. What makes African American culture so fascinating is that there is something greater than who we are that unites us and that always allows us to get through the turmoil. We are always found, you know? We are always found when we are lost.

Below is an annotated timeline of events in African American history that are relevant to the context of the play. Our goal, as mentioned by Gardley above, is to provide as wide a breadth of this history as possible.

1655: First legally recognized slave in present US

1808: Congress banned importation of slaves from Africa

1820: Missouri Compromise

1831: Turner Rebellion

1863: Emancipation Proclamation

1865: Civil War ends in April, Lincoln is assassinated days later. KKK is formed in May by ex-Confederates. In June, 250,000 slaves in Texas receive news that the Civil War is ended. By December, the 13th amendment prohibits slavery, but every southern state has enacted laws restricting the rights of emancipated Freedmen.

1868: 14th amendment defines citizenship as those born in the US, including former slaves.

1890: Mississippi wrote a disfranchisement (lack of ability to vote) section into its state constitution. This is often considered the beginning of legalized Jim Crow.

1914: Marcus Garvey establishes the Universal Negro Improvement Association

1915: The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities begins.

1917: First major civil rights demonstration in the 20th century, with 10,000 people marching in a silent parade in NYC

1931: The “Scottsboro Boys” are indicted in Alabama, despite flimsy charges. Over 3 trials, 4 are acquitted, and 5 are sentenced to long prison terms

1934: The Apollo Theater opens in Harlem

1945: The WWII effort increases the Great Migration to unprecedented levels, transforming American politics and laying the foundation for the Civil Rights movement in the coming decade

1952: Malcolm X becomes a minister with the Nation of Islam

1955: Emmett Till is murdered in August. Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the “colored section” of a Montgomery bus

1958: “Little Rock Nine” desegregate Central High School by attending with intervention by Federal troops and the National guard

1963: Martin Luther King, Jr. is arrested and writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which advocated nonviolent civil disobedience. Later that year, during the March on Washington, he delivers his “I Have Dream” speech

1964: Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act

1965: Malcolm X is assassinated

1966: The Black Panthers are founded

1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated

1985: Gwendolyn Brooks is the first African-American to be named U.S. Poet-Laureate

1987: August Wilson’s play, Fences, wins a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award

1992: A jury acquits three police officers accused of beating Rodney King. The verdict triggers a three day uprising in Los Angeles that results in over 50 people killed, over 2,000 injured and 8,000 arrested

1996: California voters pass Proposition 209 which outlaws affirmative action throughout the state

1999: Serena Williams wins the U.S. Open Womens Singles Tennis Championship, the first African American woman to do so since Althea Gibson‘s win in 1958

2005: Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast, taking an estimated 1,700 lives, the vast majority of which are African-American people living in New Orleans

2009: Barack Obama becomes the first African-American president and the country’s 44th president

2013: #BlackLivesMatter movement is begun following the indictment of a man who killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin

2014: Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a police officer. The grand jury decision not to indict the officer was announced, sparking protests in Ferguson and cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. The protests continued as another officer was not indicted for placing Eric Garner in a chokehold, leading to his death, and over the next few years have intensified as case after case of African-American people murdered by vigilantes and police officers come to light, with very few indictments

NOW: Ulysses Lincoln is coming home to Oakland.


black odyssey is playing through September 3. Get tickets here.

Hear Marcus Gardley on KQED’s Forum here.

Posted in 2017 Season, black odyssey, Main Stage | 1 Comment