The past nips at 72-year-old blues singer Oscar Clifton day and night, especially night, when Viola, the woman he loved and lost 20 years earlier, seems to float back into his life on beams of moonlight.
On such occasions, Oscar becomes a willing partner in what might be described as a "dance of the holy ghosts" — the no-caps title of an earnest, if not entirely satisfying, work by Marcus Gardley now on the boards at Center Stage.
Gardley calls this "a play on memory," and it's partially autobiographical. Much of the piece is set in an African-American community in Oakland, Calif., where Gardley grew up. The character of Oscar is inspired by the poet-playwright's grandfather; the estranged grandson in the play is named Marcus.
Out of things he experienced and stories he heard from others, Gardley has crafted a drama that seeks the roots of family bonds and wounds, of dreams and illusions.
Oscar, portrayed with terrific fire by Michael Genet, spent a long time in jail. Now, in a way, he imprisons himself. An outstretched hand looks to him like a menacing knife; the idea of offering his own hand doesn't easily occur to him. He's a ferociously proud man ("I was a player long before there even was a game"). He's also very tense and angry, conflicted about things he did and didn't do.
If there's one thing Oscar has learned — the hard way — it's that you "can't trust the heart. Fails you every time," he tells Marcus. You can't trust your recollections, either, but they at least give you something to hold on to when the ground starts to shift.
And shift it does, repeatedly, in "dance of the holy ghosts," right from the moment Marcus arrives with news of a death in the family. Oscar is thrown off balance but is determined not to fall or change his ornery ways and snarky views about almost everyone.
Through all the brittleness, it's clear there's a heart in this guy, big enough to yearn constantly for Viola, whose own flaws Oscar would willingly forget. He still has music inside him, though his gift for the blues, which once earned him a living, also cost him a bit of his soul.
There is meaty stuff in all of this, but a fair amount of fat, too, which weighs down "dance of the holy ghosts" without really adding much scope to the principal characters. Some revelations along the way seem forced or lack emotional pull; not all of the secondary characters or incidents seem crucial (a scene involving a harried priest dealing with unruly kids is especially clunky).
And while Gardley weaves some vivid poetry through his punchy, streetwise dialogue (the N- and F-words get a workout), the combination doesn't always convince. You end up too aware of the process, not fully involved in what the writer is trying to reveal and must surely want the audience to feel.
The play's overly complicated structure is another drawback, involving continual time-travel back and forth through six decades of events and reminiscences. All that shifting could use clearer, tighter focus from director Kwame Kwei-Armah, a little more atmosphere from the staging (Neil Patel designed the two-story set, Michelle Habeck the lighting).
Still, the best portions of the piece deliver insights and surprises as Oscar and Marcus slowly battle through their issues, ending up at a point where the notion of reconnecting just might make some kind of sense.
The cast gives the play a good lift. Genet's Oscar is a crackling mix of the edgy, insufferable, sentimental and vulnerable. The actor spits out the spiciest dialogue with gusto (a funny diatribe about black weddings and funerals is a great example), and he can get the more poetic lines to register naturally. He also handles the periodic blues singing convincingly.
Sheldon Best does impressive work as Marcus, bringing a distinctive nuance to each of the character's ages depicted in the play. He deftly conveys the adult Marcus' self-confidence in such things as filial responsibility and sexual orientation, and he doesn't hesitate to lecture Oscar on how "lateness is the plight of the Black race."
Best is even better as schoolboy Marcus, awkwardly visiting his grandfather in jail, or fretting over letting a girl borrow his prized possession — a 64-count box of Crayolas, "each strategically placed in its proper place according to color and personality."
Denise Burse, as the spirited Viola, and chandra thomas, as Oscar's valiant daughter and Marcus' doting mother, offer sensitive performances that often reveal a kind of music in the text. Doug Eskew takes on several assignments, most tellingly as the genial neighbor Willie, who seems to sense, like Oscar, the haunting possibilities in the moonlight.