#ThrowbackThursday: May Liang on Place and Displacement in As You Like It

Left: Assistant Dramaturg and Social Impact Consultant May Liang answering questions about As You Like It at the show’s Community Night. Right photo credit: Jay Yamada.

Contemporary approaches to a 400 year-old text can reveal new resonances — and deep tensions. May Liang, assistant dramaturg and social impact consultant for last season’s As You Like It, reflects on the questions that surfaced in the rehearsal room as actors explored relationships to place and character within the design of the play.

Interested in learning more about gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area? Check out Causa Justa::Just Cause, Cal Shakes’ community partner from our 2015 Artist-Investigator round.

“Are we gentrifiers?”

A question that one may hear being asked at a new SF Mission coffee shop or on the sidewalks around Lake Merritt. It can be spoken in a self-conscious way – an uncomfortable thought in question of where one should belong. Or, for those who question the concept, it can be heard as an incredulous exasperation.

This question also came up in the rehearsal room for Cal Shake’s 2017 As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang. As the lushness of the Court transforms into the skeletal warehouse-like space of the play’s Arden, we see the exiled Duke Senior and his followers huddled in the cold and barren landscape.

But what comes out of Duke Senior is not how forlorn he is for having lost his place. He extols the virtues of their newfound space:

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Sweet are the uses of adversity…
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.

A translation of this into our modern context can be problematic: it reflects a way of thinking that can be equated to what newcomers may have said about the Mission District in San Francisco just a few years ago, when it was “discovered.” And many of us have heard and seen the results of the changes that followed.

But Duke Senior goes on:

Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with arrowheads
Have their round haunches gored.

Let’s first acknowledge the historical problem of comparing communities of people (of color) to animals – Shakespeare’s language can be tricky when making leaps in comparing our modern society using his words. But Duke Senior seems to have an inkling that something is not right in their position within their “newly discovered” space. And he’s not the only one – as reported by one of Duke Senior’s followers:

The melancholy Jaques grieves at that,
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish’d you….
Swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

And so the question came up – “are we gentrifiers?”

Shakespeare could not have predicted that his words could so pointedly describe a notion that is very present in the forefront of our community consciousness with our current housing crisis and widening wealth gap. But it’s impossible to miss it in Jaques’ lament.

As the play’s Arden continues to transform throughout the play, that question begins to unravel – it becomes complicated with other questions that arise:

Where can exiles belong? How does class influence exile? How does a space create confinement vs. freedom of expression and exploration? Who can own a space? Who can welcome others into it? Is this even possible?

In our Arden, the exiles discover their hidden selves, explore other options that were not permitted breath by the confined codes of the Court. They could proudly present themselves as however they like, from a joker turned lover to a lead character exploring and claiming their true gender identity.

The natives of Arden are also not victims – they are more than capable in their way of life and only through their welcoming spirit can the new exiles start to understand themselves and thrive together.

So, are they gentrifiers? I can’t say that this question was answered within the rehearsal process or even within our version of the play. But the context in which we put the exiles and natives of Arden shed some light on how we can critically think about our modern understanding in regards to place and space.

May Liang is an emerging director/theater artist establishing a career in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a Directing Mentee/Resident Artist at Crowded Fire Theater and has worked with TheatreFIRST, PlayGround Center for New Plays (Directing Fellow 2017), Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, Ferocious Lotus Theater Company (Literary Manager), Bindlestiff Studios, Ubuntu Theater Project, Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Ground Floor Lab, and Impact Theater. She was a participant in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab 2017 and you can see her work next at the Bay Area Children’s Theater.


Miguel de Cervantes: A Remarkable Life

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Last week my 85-year-old mother had cause to go to the bank, where, with her walker frame, she stood in front of another elderly woman with an identical frame. “Let’s have a race,” said the woman behind her. “I should warn you, when I get going with this thing I can run like the clappers,” replied my mother. The other woman said, “I withdraw.”

Today the world—particularly in its wealthier parts—is blessed with many 85-year-olds. In the 16th and 17th centuries this was not the case: many people considered a good long life to be one lived till the mid-forties. But if you made it to the age of 8 (37 percent of children did not), you were not unlikely, if you had the means (and also the good fortune to avoid the plague), to reach the age of 50 or even 60. This was more than true of Miguel de Cervantes, who lived until almost 70, surviving three gunshot wounds and over 5 years’ imprisonment, much of it spent in irons.

We know almost nothing of the first 20 years of Cervantes’ life from 1547 onward, except that he came from a noble but impecunious family. We know much more about this period in Spain, which was one of great transition. The old “native” Spain, with its chivalrous codes of honor and its powerful nobility, had crumbled under the force of the Habsburg kings’ sole dominion, backed by the church and the Spanish inquisition. Spain sought to command as much of Europe as it could, extending its authority into the Americas, the East Indies, parts of France and Germany, Portugal, North Africa, and Italy’s nation states. The Spaniards’ voyages around the world led to many advantages: for example, on discovering that the orange plants they had plundered from China could, within three days, magically cure the horrible disease of scurvy that produced swollen, stinking gums and bleeding to the brain, wealthy Spanish landowners now graced their homes with their own orangeries, namely glass-enclosed, heated greenhouses that produced oranges all year round.

This period of enormous growth and stature led to an efflorescence not only in the gardens of Spain, but also in its artists. The period from 1492 to 1659 become known as the Spanish Golden Age, during which Miguel de Cervantes spent his entire life.

The clearest knowledge we have of Cervantes’ young days begins with his occupancy, at age 21, of the role of Cardinal’s chamberlain. At the age of 23 he resigned this post and entered the military. Seeds of Don Quixote’s stubbornness can be found in the exploits of the young soldier Cervantes: although desperately ill on the voyage from Messina, Cervantes insisted, against all advice from doctors and comrades, on sticking to his post, claiming that he would die in the service of God rather than remain in the ship’s hold secure and in good health. During this military campaign he survived three gunshot wounds, which left him severely incapacitated and hospitalized for seven months, and he never regained the use of his wounded left hand. He came out of hospital, however, only to enlist for another three years’ military service, beginning his return to Spain at the age of 28 in the company of his brother, with a written recommendation from his General to the king honoring his brave service.

On the way home, the Cervantes brothers’ regiment was overpowered by an Algerine force and taken to Algiers. A ransomed fellow-captive got the news of the brothers’ imprisonment to their family, who strove by every means—the father selling his goods and the Cervantes sisters forfeiting their dowries—to cobble together enough ransom money to free them. But when the Algerian governor found on Miguel’s person the general’s letters of recommendation to the king, he concluded that the young man was a person of great importance, and that the ransom money was inconsequential for someone so highly prized: he kept Miguel in captivity, allowing his brother to go free.

Thus began a period in Miguel’s life that affords some precedent for his eventual literary hero’s indomitable strength of conviction (if not for his absurdity). Miguel tried not only to escape, but to take his fellow captives to safety with him; and when they were discovered, he insisted, despite threats of impalement, that all blame for the breakout be placed on his shoulders alone. The Algerian governor executed some of his companions but held onto Cervantes, feeling that there was something special in his bravery and resourcefulness. Although restrained in irons, Cervantes remained unbroken in spirit and ventured another escape, for which he was sentenced to 2000 blows to the back, which would have killed him had not some unknown powerful people interceded to save him. He was kept under even further confinement (how was this even possible?!), but two years later attempted another escape, trying to save sixty of his fellow-prisoners with him. An informant, jealous of the love and admiration that Cervantes inspired in his fellows, revealed his plot to the governor, and Cervantes’ plan was again foiled. No threat of torture could compel him to name any of his accomplices, and he was sent back to prison heavily ironed as before.

Portrait of Cervantes credited to Juan de Jáuregui. Like Shakespeare, there is no official likeness of Cervantes.

All this time Cervantes’ family never ceased its efforts to raise sufficient ransom money to get him released. Finally the governor, planning his own retirement, accepted a sum, releasing the 33-year-old prisoner five years almost to the day after his first captivity. But Cervantes’ trials were not yet over. A jealous functionary, claiming to be an officer of the Inquisition, concocted false evidence against him, claiming that he was guilty of misconduct while in prison. Cervantes checkmated him by drawing up a list of 25 questions that covered the period of his captivity, and he asked that credible witnesses he deposed to answer them. All of them attested to his bravery and to his selfless concern for others while in prison, and he returned to Spain a free man.

But not for long. He was penniless, and felt compelled, for the sake of his own survival, to rejoin his old regiment. Pushing 40 and with a useless left hand, however, he could expect no promotion, and he finally left the army, married a woman of sufficient means to feed them both as well as his infant daughter (conceived with someone else before his marriage), and wrote 30 or 40 plays in an attempt to earn a living as a writer. The plays were not admired, and at the close of the century, at the age of 50, he accepted a position as tax collector. It was as he traveled from town to town collecting the king’s taxes that he noted down scenes that would eventually end up in his remarkable novel, Don Quixote. He was again imprisoned because a merchant to whom he entrusted the taxation revenue absconded with the money—and although this imprisonment was brief, it appears that Cervantes was not reinstated to his former position. But he did appear, in this last prison stint, to have begun transcribing Don Quixote from his notes. The novel was first published in 1605 when Cervantes was almost 60, and was immediately successful (although Cervantes himself still had to work at various jobs for the Council, trying to make up the money with which the merchant had absconded.)

Despite Don Quixote’s immediate success, Cervantes didn’t continue with his anti-hero’s comic adventures. He wrote several other works, mainly plays, continuing to believe that he could make a great career as a playwright. The fact that Don Quixote has a second volume is due to a disciple of the great writer Lope de Vega, who loathed Cervantes. This disciple, Avallenada, wrote his own “second volume” of Don Quixote, to which he attached a preface attacking Cervantes with such vile descriptions that our literary hero was provoked to write his own second part to Don Quixote, eventually killing off the famous knight errant to ensure that he had final control of his character.

Cervantes died at the age of 69, on April 23 1616, the same day as Shakespeare.


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 pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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


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!



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.”



Buried Histories: Marcus Gardley on history and black odyssey

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.