Centerstage’s dance of the holy ghosts starts sharp but finishes flat

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(Michael Genet and Sheldon Best in dance of the holy ghosts. (Photo by Richard Anderson)

“The blues is when you drop your bread on the floor and it lands jelly side down.”
Leroy “Lefty” Bates

The Blues.

By definition, the plaintive phrases and the mournful mood of Blues music always tell a story of anguished regret. Lost loves, squandered chances, hard times and family break-ups all find a place in these woe-begotten panoplies. And each finds a place in the current Centerstage production of dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory by Marcus Gardley.

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Michael Genet in dance of the holy ghosts. (Photo by Richard Anderson)

Directed by Centerstage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, dance of the holy ghosts finger-picks through the memories of its protagonists – octogenarian Oscar Clifton and his adult grandson Marcus – as each sifts through a history of family dysfunction on the eve of a funeral service.

Oscar Clifton is a Blues man hanging onto his fading memories; playing chess with his friend Willie and regaling him with tales of his family and his life on the road. But Oscar’s tenuous hold on reality is severely tested when his estranged grandson Marcus pays a visit; a visit that buffets both Oscar and Marcus between the present and the past.

The trouble starts early on, in a flashback to the 1940’s, as Oscar woos the smart and sassy Viola over a vigorous game of chess. Viola succumbs to Oscar’s somewhat clumsy charms, even though she acknowledges that, “You’re not mine if your heart is somewhere else.”

Regretful, but unyielding, Oscar replies, “My fingers are itching to strum” – knowing all-the-while he may be strumming his way right out of the heart of his bride.

Marcus Gardley is a poet-playwright who is the recent 2012 James Baldwin Fellow. He is also the 2011 PEN Laura Pels award winner for Mid-Career Playwright and a Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence Grantee with Victory Gardens in Chicago.
Marcus Gardley,a poet-playwright, is the recent 2012 James Baldwin Fellow. He is also the 2011 PEN Laura Pels award winner for Mid-Career Playwright and a Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence Grantee with Victory Gardens in Chicago.

In true Blues fashion, Oscar makes a mess of his life and the lives of Viola, his daughter Darlene and his grandson, Marcus. At one point, the best he can offer Marcus is advice to get a girlfriend, saying, “When I was your age, I had two girlfriends AND a cousin.” Never mind that Marcus is only 10 years old in this scene. Still Oscar offers wry remarks and sad reflections while he follows the dictates of his heart, even after stating that, “You can’t trust the heart. It will fail you every time.”

While mostly entertaining, dance of the holy ghosts is not without its problems. It was interesting for this writer to see this drama on the heels of reviewing The Glass Menagerie at Everyman Theater. Both pieces are memory plays and each has difficult moments, but where they truly separate is in the experience the authors bring to their respective narratives.

Although the two plays are autobiographical in nature, Gardley admits he never really knew his own grandfather. So where Tennessee Williams’ play is set within his own dark reality, Gardley meanders around in the what-ifs of life. This may work if your central characters are not very well defined, but Oscar Clifton is too much of a leopard to ever change his spots, and the leap the audience is asked to make near the end misses the mark of a bona fide Blues story.

Like the play itself, the cast of dance of the holy ghosts has its highs and lows.

Michael Genet as guitarist Oscar Clifton perfectly captured the mood of a cantankerous, aged musician who lost his way two bars into a muddy melody. Genet delivered his lines with a combative world-weariness and held the crowd till almost the very end.

Denise Burse and Michael Genet in dance of the holy ghosts. (Photo by Richard Anderson)
Denise Burse and Michael Genet in dance of the holy ghosts. (Photo by Richard Anderson)

Denise Burse, as the not-so-longsuffering young wife Viola, sparkles through several coy seductions, sweet songs and a touching dance. Later on, her weathered Viola is just as abrasive as Genet’s Oscar, and the pair play each of their scenes together extremely well.

On the “B” side of the record, Sheldon Best appeared ill-at-ease in the part of the grandson, Marcus. Best does have one endearing turn while confronting his elementary school crush, Tanisha (delightfully played by Jasmine Carmichael).

But overall, Best never completely connects with the audience in a way that conjures either empathy or sympathy. Similarly, Chandra Thomas gets derailed in her opening scene as Oscar’s adolescent daughter Darlene and doesn’t quite convince when her character grows up into an over-worked and over-wrought mom (Thomas’ brief turn as a hospital emergency room nurse was a pleasant diversion.)

If it is possible for a supporting player to steal a show, Doug Eskew nearly pulls it off in several scenes with five separate roles, including Clifton’s friend Willie and the children’s parochial school teacher, Father Michael. Given the church’s recent woes, it could use more priests like Eskew’s Father Michael.

A nod to director Kwame Kwei-Armah for getting the most out of this uneven script. When dance of the holy ghosts works, it works very well and the audience was justly pleased with this effort on opening night. It must also be noted that this play highlights several racial stereotypes. Some people may find this offensive, but Kwei-Armah has his cast play these personas not as cartoons but as very human characters.

The cast from the dance of the holy ghosts at Centerstage. (Photo by Richard Anderson)
The cast from the dance of the holy ghosts at Centerstage. (Photo by Richard Anderson)

Once again, scenic designer Neil Patel is right on the mark with a stage which evokes the hopeless desperation of a life passed in the plaster-less lathe walls of a tenement house. Michelle Habeck’s lighting design works well accentuating this bleak backdrop.

Conversely, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound and music design was curiously wanting in the kind of Blues music which could help with the memory transitions. Perhaps the strangest note here was the decision to use the Pop song, “How Deep Is Your Love” for one scene fade.

It didn’t help Milburn and Bodeen’s effort that three gifted Blues musicians (Memphis Gold, Jonny Grave and Trina Coleman) entertained the audience before and after the show with the kind of music dance of the holy ghosts seemed to lack. Luckily, David Burdick’s costume designs helped to fill in these gaps as the cast raced back and forth between scenes set over seven decades.

Audiences will find poetry in dance of the holy ghosts, and some incredibly funny, insightful lines. But the play falters when the author opts for a contrived closing which runs counter to the build-up of his contrary central character. And that’s a shame, because there are some truly wonderful performances in this production. In the end, just when the Blues should prevail, Gardley drops dance of the holy ghosts – jelly side down.

Centerstage’s production of dance of the holy ghosts runs  to November 17. Running time for the play is a little more than two hours with one 15-minute intermission. As with all productions staged in the Head Theater, seating for those arriving late is at the discretion of the house manger. Tickets and other information may be found here.

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