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The elevator and hallways filled with people lugging grocery bags and foil containers of chicken and salad and more pieces of dinner, descending to the basement of The Old Globe’s rehearsal building in Balboa Park one evening last week.
A potluck’s sense of randomness, and bringing what you have, was not a gratuitous metaphor. The crowd filing into the room contained teenagers, businesspeople, well-coiffed ladies, a park ranger and a dance teacher originally from Senegal. They’d come to the Globe through sundry roads.
This is The Old Globe’s new “Odyssey” production.
Dozens more will be involved in the effort in the next few weeks as the Globe launches an experiment with community engagement in conjunction with its 75th anniversary. The theater hired director Lear deBessonet and composer and lyricist Todd Almond to come up with a musical theater piece that could involve a slew of San Diego community members and institutions as well as professional actors.
After meeting with a range of San Diegans over the last couple of years, deBessonet said she found an undeniable trend: Nearly everyone has come here from somewhere else.
Those “stories of home, and the journeys people take to get home,” inspired her, she told the group. She and Almond re-imagined a “San Diego-specific” version of Homer’s epic poem, “Odyssey,” and she combed the city for its stars.
DeBessonet paid special attention to community groups in the city’s poorer, ethnically diverse southeastern neighborhoods. The Old Globe bought a building in southeastern San Diego a few years ago to house its prop and costume collection and to provide space for its set-building department so it wouldn’t be squished into the main theater in Balboa Park.
“Odyssey” attempts to identify the Globe as a neighbor in that community, not just using space there.
The St. Stephen’s choir, from one of the oldest African-American churches in the area, will appear as the voice of Athena. An assembly of park rangers, led by Ranger Kim Duclo, will serve as Penelope’s suitors. The drumline from Valhalla High School will play the palace guard.
Filling out the rest of the ensemble will be neighborhood residents who came through those community centers like the Jackie Robinson YMCA, hip-hop dancers from Culture Shock, musicians from San Diego Youth Symphony, kids from Junior Theatre, and a handful of the Globe’s Guilders, a group that organizes fundraising and volunteering for the theater.
Beyond the community members, there are a couple of notable out-of-towners. Alvin Crawford will take a month off from his ensemble role in the Broadway production of “The Lion King” to join the cast as Odysseus later this week.
One of the potluckers, Andre Carter, is playing one of Odysseus’s men. Carter hypothesized while he ate about which way he’d be killed off in the play, knowing the whole posse goes, whether by monster, by weather or by the three dangerous fish-women known as Sirens in Greek mythology.
“All that’s left to find out is: Siren, storm or Cyclops?” he said. “I prefer Siren.”
Carter ended up in the play by chance. One morning he drove to the Jackie Robinson Y to talk to the director about contracting with them to provide some financial benefits packages.
But before he could pay his business call, he saw a sign for the auditions. He went. He’s still yet to make it to the meeting.
This kind of community-focused theater has earned deBessonet critical acclaim in other cities.
As the group finished eating, she highlighted the Globe’s founding in 1935 as part of the California Expo and suggested theater, in its ideal form, provides a way to explore human achievement and story.
Facing a full room, each person representing a number of details and logistics that she’ll be trying to weave together all month, deBessonet spoke hopefully about the play.
“What we’re proposing with this play is a vision of a unified, joyful city,” she said. “A place where we can celebrate each other.”
“Odyssey” will be presented on Friday, Sept. 30 and Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. Tickets are $15.
I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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