Review: "Dance of the Holy Ghosts" at Ubuntu Theater Project

Jordan Nickels

From gospel music to sweet potato pie, Marcus Gardley’s play Dance of the Holy Ghosts follows the life of Oscar Clifton through rose-colored glasses. However, the ghosts of his past and present tell the audience a much different story than the life Oscar remembers. 

Oscar Clifton receives a mysterious visitor, who turns out to be his adult grandson Marcus. After hearing about a death in the family, Oscar recalls events from his past surrounding his relationships with Marcus, his daughter, and his estranged wife, Viola.

Berwick Haynes plays Oscar Clifton, a performance that is hysterical as it is emotional. Haynes lands jokes with quick wit, yet breaks down to the point of pulling at your heartstrings. Halili Knox plays both Viola and schoolgirl Tanisha, roles that she could flip on a dime. Viola is a strong role that Knowx navigated with ease, adding a heartwarming sense to Viola’s tough exterior. Michael Curry had the task of playing the present day Marcus and his younger self. It was fascinating to see Curry portray the curiosity and confidence of young Marcus that carried on into Marcus’ adulthood. The ensemble played a variety of characters in Oscar’s life, as well as the Greek Chorus turned Gospel Choir that was fully engaged to the story, the lingering spirts at the heart of this production.

This was more than the typical memory play, as the ghosts of the Greek Chorus were the living, breathing carries of Oscar’s past. With the play set around a funeral procession and the theater an actual church, it added more relevance to the ambience created by Marcus Gardley’s work. A typical memory play sees the character having the control, guiding his audience on a journey through his memories. However, Dance of the Holy Ghosts doesn’t see Oscar as the orchestrator, but the witness to his own life story. This is not A Christmas Carol, where these ghosts teach Scrooge a lesson, but the look at the life of a man who is now trying to pick up the pieces, to remember himself.

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Dance of the Holy Ghosts at its core is about family, with vibrant, relatable characters to a modern audience. However, this play is also a cautionary tale. Oscar didn’t appreciate the relationships he had with his family and often put himself first, while not always intentional. This strain on his family tree builds over the years and leaves this once proud patriarch into reclusive life of anger and frustration. This play teaches us how not to take our loved ones for granted and that memories are powerful, no matter how stretched they are from truth.

Ubuntu Theater Project has work shopped Marcus Gardley’s Dance of the Holy Ghosts twice before, but this production rings true this round, the third time being the charm. The atmosphere of the church, echoed by the beautiful gospel music arrangements, was the cherry on top of a play that both made you laugh and brought you to tears. While I’m not much of a religious person myself, I felt blessed to see Dance of the Holy Ghosts, another Ubuntu hit that’s not to be missed.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8