Ubuntu Theater Returns to Marcus Gardley

It’s the third premier of dance of the holy ghosts, but this one is proper.


Photo by Simone Finney, courtesy of Ubuntu Theater Project

West Oakland native Marcus Gardley’s early play dance of the holy ghosts is subtitled “a play on memory,” and it’s all wrapped up in family history between a young man and his long-lost grandfather in Oakland. Ubuntu Theater Project’s West Coast premiere of the play, which originally premiered at Yale Rep in 2006, already has a long history behind it.

In fact, Ubuntu produced the play twice in Oakland, in 2014 and 2015. Executive and artistic director Michael Moran explained that at the time, the company was new and unknown, and those were considered workshop productions. “In grad school, I was looking for shows to do over the summer,” Moran said. “I came upon Marcus’ script and just fell in love with it, and I wrote to him out of the blue. He had no idea who I was and no reason to trust me at all. I said I love this script, I want to do it in Oakland for this new company — would you allow us to do it? He said yes and gifted it to us, and it became really a favorite of our community that came to see it. This time, since we’re just a little more established, we could afford the premiere rights for it, which feels really great.”

Moran is once again directing the play — in an abandoned church with a gospel choir out of which the characters emerge. “The character of Marcus is using this abandoned sanctuary to tell the story of his grandfather, in some way in memoriam to his grandfather,” Moran said. “Then, through the telling, he comes to understand and forgive and know himself a lot more. In the play, to me, there’s this sort of paradox of the presence of absence. The grandfather has been absent for a lot of the grandson’s life and a lot of the mother’s life, and a lot of the play is getting at the core of what is it that creates that absence, that need to not be present? I think that’s a fascinating thing to deal with in the theater, which is to me all about presence.”

Moran has directed another Gardley play for Ubuntu, The Gospel of Lovingkindness in 2016, but something in holy ghosts keeps him coming back. “There’s something in this particular play, and Marcus’ work in general, that I think really reaches for something quite spiritual through the act of theater, and that really inspires me ... I think it’s a real gesture toward healing without trying to mitigate or get away from the real pain that can be there in relationships. I think he achieves that so powerfully, and it feels so epic in an internal way.”

Gardley’s acclaim has grown for his poetic works packed with myth and humor. His play The House That Will Not Stand at Berkeley Repertory Theatre won a Will Glickman Award in 2014, and his black odyssey was such a hit at California Shakespeare Theater last year that Cal Shakes is bringing it back.

“I think Marcus is one of the best playwrights in the United States right now, and getting to work on his work is such a privilege,” Moran said. “It’s really exciting and amazing that he’s from Oakland, and in many ways, this is a love letter to Oakland.”

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