Write a Soldier's Story
Every story needs a time, a place and momentum. In the Black Odyssey Boston, Ulysses’ journey takes 13 years and it is set between the Gulf of Mexico and Boston (originally Harlem). The momentum for this fable comes as Ulysses confronts his inner conflicts and journeys through his family history.
The Black Odyssey uses magical realism and oral history to frame this classical hero’s struggle. First leaving home, journeying through an experience of war, and then returning. Using the Odyssey as an outline, consider your own story. What struggles have you overcome, and where have you established your home?
If the time period for your story is the roadmap, and the place is the vehicle (in this case Boston), these prompts offer fuel for you to explore the conflicts you’ve overcome. The momentum for your story will develop through the ways your characters handle conflict. These conflicts grow from desires, wants and fears. Use these prompts to generate ideas. Then put the pieces together in a rational order. Here are five blocks to begin.
1. Break the Water
Trauma might be defined as a point of change, where everything before that moment seems completely different from everything after. Trauma can be both bad and good. It could be an accident or the birth of a child. We all experience trauma from time to time. In these moments we travel from one realm of experience to another. Our perspectives change.
Consider the inciting incidents of this play: Our hero dead, or near dead is born by flood waters onto a stranger's roof. Meanwhile Nella gives birth to his son. Ancestors guide the action, but the actual conflicts are ultimately human. In the play, Malachai’s birth gives a strong purpose for Ulysses’ survival.
BLACK ODYSSEY SCRIPT, PAGE 20:
Nella: ...I see him. I see some of Ulysses features in your face. You got his eyes, his cheekbones, his -
Aunt Tina: it's in the blood. All us of the Ashanti tribe favor.
Nella: And here I was thinkin all of his relatives were gone. He was born an orphan, you know? How'd you find me?
Aunt Tina: He made me come see you. And don't ask how, cause your head won't be able to stand it. Just know that I'm here for you. You're mine, gal. Even that one balled in your belly mine. He's yours but he's mine and I don't let mine drown in tears or sink into hell-pits of depression. I don't let mine not eat, or sleep all day or be alone and not bathe. I'm a Great Aunt and a Good Ancestor. I'm here even when I ain't here, hear me? And I'm here to help you bring you husband back because he lives for you, Nella. He's alive.
Nella: Dear God! O my God, O….I think my water just broke.
Aunt Tee: Course it did. Now lay back and let Aunt Tee lay hands. Your son's coming, gal. He's early and yet right on time!
She lays Nella on her back and an eerie blue light seeps from underneath Nella's dress. It covers the stage in a flood of blue as lights fade to the hues of morning.
Bring to mind a trauma you experienced. Remember, these moments can be both tragic and joyful. You might think of marriage, or the birth or death of someone close to you. Maybe the trauma that comes to mind is an injury or a moment of triumph.
For the brave, this trauma will be something that you personally experienced. First hand knowledge will give your soldier story power and resonance. If you don't feel like engaging your own experiences or you're feeling particularly empathetic, pick a more general kind of trauma and build a fiction around that moment.
Break the water by focusing in on this moment of trauma. Who is there? Use this opportunity to establish a few key characters or focus in on the personal emotion involved. What happened immediately before this incident? What happens immediately after?
Write for 10 minutes, and then read what you wrote out loud for someone. If you like what you create, revise it and share it on Reddit.com/r/warrior writers or wherever.
2. Establish a Home
Home base is the place where you return to refresh yourself. Home can be a place, or a person. We often establish our homes through our most sentimental memories, and in this play Home for Ulysses is with Nella. It could be in Boston. It could be in Harlem. The important thing is that he is with her.
Marcus Gardley establishes home base early in the play, during the Gods’ chess game. But Boston is just a place, the setting for this play. The emotional reasons that this place is important arise as Ulysses’ journey home begins.
Washed up on the roof of a house in the Mississippi Delta, circa 1968, Ulysses travels back in time through his own memory and his family's stories. The play is a combination of oral history, myth and personal experience. Processing these narratives becomes Ulysses’ legend. Standing, abstracted from the future moment he inhabits, he remembers his home, girl.
BLACK ODYSSEY SCRIPT, PAGE 29:
Ulysses: I hate it when you leave my arms. Feels like I'm losing limbs. I need you.
Nella: And you'll have me but right now you have to get dressed. It took me two months to secure this appointment at the Justice of the Peace. We are not going to be late. Today, come hell or high water, I am going to be thee Mrs. Ulysses Malcolm Lincoln - much to the disappointment of the people at church, my job, my neighbors and my best friend Keekee.
Ulysses: They'll love me when I become a decorated soldier. Everybody loves a hero.
He nibbles her earlobe.
Nella: What are you doing?
Ulysses: Having a snack.
Nella: Will you please get dressed? Come on U… Ever since you got back from boot camp you've been on me like I'm sticky. I need you to be a man today, I need you to do your part.
Where is home? Maybe it's a place you love, or a person. Think of a most treasured memory, and explore that moment. Who was involved in the moment besides you? If you were alone, describe elements of the scenery. If you were with someone else, develop a short dialogue.
Explore your home, and you don't need to be direct. You’re just writing down rough ideas, which you can reassemble later. Just identify the place, the person(s), the moment and move forward from there.
3. Make Meal Memories
Life revolves around food. Without nourishment, we would die. So food is a great source of conflict. We all have memories involving food, whether it’s a heated family discussion over Thanksgiving, or an unheated Thanksgiving meal of power bars and water. Food motivates our minds.
Consider the scene where Circe tries to seduce Ulysses to stay forever with her in her leir at the bottom of the sea. She lays out her spread through language:
BLACK ODYSSEY SCRIPT, PAGE 48:
When hands come together
Eyes close and heads bow over food
And heat from spices, slices of meat
Scent of mint, of toffee, coffee newly brewed
Mouths water like ice droplets on crystal glass
Eyes tear from steamy vegetable, hot potato and corn mash
When butter beans turn an ‘eat me green’
Melting margarine into a golden glisten
And if you listen… you can hear guts growlin
Hands tremblin and folks grabbin hold of theyz plate.
Cause everybody is prayin they hurry up with grace.
God want us to eat!
Them hot links before they turn cold
Them baby carrots before they grow old
Hurry up, while the sweet tea is sweet
And the peach cobbler is peachy, preachy and sticky
Coated in syrup and finger-licky
Swimmin and sinnin in cinnamon brown sugar
Layed like spread legs on a bed of crust and flour
Topped with lustful, spoonfuls of whipped cream
And ice cream and I’m a scream
If this prayer keep me too long from them long braised string beans
And barbecue short ribs drizzling with thick hot sauce
I don’t even need my salad tossed
I’m a go in!
Eyes first on them black eyed peas
Then neck them neck bones like I aim to please
I’ll open real wide for fried legs and thighs
Suck them pigs feet, go downtown on that upside down cake
Excuse me while I let gets me another plate
Give me some turkey wings and greens,
Tator salad and chitterlings
Dump my dumplings in chicken and gravy
Pour it over some hoecakes
I’m too hungry to be a lady
Man, you better not smile at my cheese grits
I’m getting ready to have a soul food fit
Then I’m a sop my own-self up with a biscuit.
Till I fall fast asleep.
Now Lord bless this food cause it sho is time to eat
Notice how the prayers starts with general luxury foods, sliced meats and coffee, into specific southern dishes like peach cobbler and black eyed peas, and ends finally with the leavings, chitterlings and the soul food. The food is described with lustful undertones and sexual innuendo. And what a weird prayer, describing the food instead of blessing it. Spend a few minutes reflecting on the language and what the food here conveys.
Write about a time when you overcame hunger to accomplish a specific task that needed to be done, or endured your lust in order to understand something more significant. Maybe what pops to mind is a time of plenty, with family surrounding. Often our most fraught encounters occur around the dinner table.
You might think of a time of plenty or a time of fasting, and what motivated your actions during that time. Don't worry about mirroring the script. Think of your own experience, what you did and what others did. Focus in on the food. Try to describe a conflict through a perspective of hunger and lust.
4. Create Conflict
Conflict is the source of momentum. It's the spark that consumes the fuel of the past experiences that lead up to it and it drives the implications of the acts and emotions of the actors involved. Conflicts arise continuously throughout this epic Black Odyssey drama. These moments of trauma are also moments of decision. They propel the action forward, and they ultimately lead to a climax. The climax is the inevitable result of all the previous actions, but it's not necessarily expected.
BLACK ODYSSEY SCRIPT, PAGE 84:
Alter Ego: Just like you planned your future. You were so hell bent on being somebody's hero. Thought you had it all figured out. Went to war to escape the war at home: the drive bys, the gangs, the gun warfare. So afraid to be a killer and ended up killing. That cause that's who you truly are! We're killers! Stop running from yourself-
Ulysses: -Bullshit! I'm a soldier! I'm a husband. A father. I'M NOT A KILLER!
Alter Ego: Then why'd you kill that boy? Tell the truth: it's just me and you.
Ulysses: -it was an accident. He got loud, I don't know. He frightened me! He...I don't remember.
Alter Ego: You do. Stop running and Fight! TELL THE TRUTH!
Ulysses beats on his head.
Ulysses: He won't shut up, I begged him! SHUT UP!
The moon pours a spot on Poly'famous. He chants as before:
Poly’famous: Allahu Akubar
Ash-hadu Alla Ilaha, Illallah
Ulysses: I raised my gun cause I just wanted him to stop. Please. I put the gun up to his face because I needed him to stop! I thought it would…
Alter Ego: What did you see Ulysses?
Identify a moment of great conflict. It does not have to be at all connected to any of the other things you've written about. Think of the characters and the objects involved. Just describe the incident factually.
Think of this as an incident report. You might include some necessary dialogue, but focus in on the facts. Who. What. When. Where. Questions of why and how might be asked later to build some purpose and resolution. But for now focus on this instance of great emotional turmoil, and describe it clearly for those who were not there.
5. Retrace Roots Homeward
The Black Odyssey Boston celebrates ancestry and family history. It explores the basis of identity. Using ancient religious themes and the traditional hero's narrative, Gardley ultimately celebrates the reunion of Ulysses’ family.
Trauma tares the family apart, and then trauma brings the family back together. All the while the gods play games, argue and celebrate their successes.
BLACK ODYSSEY SCRIPT, PAGE 96:
Aunt Tina: (singing)
Two roads diverged in the blood
I could not take both
Chose the one less traveled by that
Led me right to you
She puts a stool in front of her. Alsendra enters and sits on the stool. Aunt Tina does her great-great granddaughter Alsendra’s hair. Alsendra gathers grease in her hand.
Aunt Tina and Alsendra:
My heart was caught in the storm
Shouldn’t have survived
Chose to swim high against the tide--That
Led me right to you
Alsendra puts a pillow in front of her. Benevolence enters, sits. Her mother Calypso does her hair.
Aunt Tina and Alsendra and Benevolence and Malachai:
My soul was drowned in the flood
I could not make breath
I chose to live and defeat death and that
Led me right to you
Artez enters and joins the chorus.
Aunt Tina and Alsendra and Benevolence and Malachai and Artez:
Something down on the inside
Cryin: don’t run, don’t hide
Something’s urgin me to do right
Sayin: Don’t die, don’t die
Somebody prayed on the other side
Singing: don’t run, don’t hide
Somebody gave me enough pride
Sayin: don’t die, don’t die
Think about your roots, your family history. What aspects of your identity does your home represent? How has your perspective of your home changed, as you have learned your family history? Think about the places and people that continue to draw you. What do you appreciate about your community?
With your journey in mind, write a song or poem about your home. Think about what makes life worth living. Describe what you fight to preserve and also what you hope to achieve. Using simple language, celebrate your values through verse.