Gospel at Colonus Review: Sophocles as Rousing Black Church Service

Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s glorious gospel musical, an inspired retelling of Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” as if it’s an African-American Pentecostal church service, debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, and has been performed somewhere in the world ever since. It is now at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for free, only through this Sunday. Beneath the open sky, a huge and hugely talented cast – including several who were in the original production —  give a soul-scorching delivery of the blissful score, composed of gospel and blues, with a little doo-wop thrown in and some heavenly jazz riffs.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters,” proclaims The Messenger at the outset, “I take as my text this evening the Book of Oedipus” – thus presenting Greek mythology, which the Greeks saw as their religion, as a Sunday sermon.
The Messenger is portrayed by Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller, from whom the original cast (which included Morgan Freeman as the Messenger) learned the art of black preaching. In a program note, Dr. Miller points out its connection with Greek tragedy. “The black preacher must be a master storyteller….what I do every Sunday is drama, but I am performing for the Lord. Preaching is drama, and the same thing that goes into effective preaching goes into effective drama.”
Also in the program, The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis makes an argument for a similarity in worldview – how both the Ancient Greeks and the Bible view Man as divine but powerless in the face of death.
By presenting the story of “Oedipus at Colonus” as a church service, “Gospel at Colonus” enlivens the second play of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, which is the least familiar (and normally the least dramatically engaging) of the three. In the first play, “Oedipus Rex,” Oedipus gouges out his eyes upon learning of the horror of his having fulfilled the prophecy of killing his father and bedding his mother. In the third, “Antigone,” Oedipus’ daughter defies King Creon in order to bury her brother, one of Oedipus’s two dead sons. (Her defiance of foolish authority is getting lots of stage time these days, including in Theater of War’s production “Antigone in Ferguson,” which also uses gospel music.)
In Breuer’s adaptation of Sophocles’ second play, Antigone (Greta Oglesby), an evangelist, leads her father to Colonus, a holy place, where he’s welcomed by Theseus (Wren T. Brown, who’s been turned from a king into a pastor in this adaptation) and urged to leave by Creon (Jay Caldwell, now a deacon.)  Oedipus has come to Colonus seeking redemption, and, after some complications involving his family and Creon, there he finally finds it.

In a brilliant bit of casting, Oedipus is portrayed by the Blind Boys of Alabama, a group initially formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. It was the group’s performance at the original BAM production of “Gospel at Colonus” that turned them from gospel favorites into mainstream, Grammy-winning stars,recording with everybody from Willie Nelson to Lou Reed. (Their version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” was the theme song for the HBO series “The Wire.”)
But it would be foolish to claim any stand-outs in a cast that has nothing but stand-outs, from the Legendary Soul Stirrers (also in the original production) as Choragos the leader of the chorus to Kevin Davis as Oedipus’ rebellious son Polyneices, who seeks his father’s blessing but doesn’t receive it: “Because you’re evil,” explains Sam Butler Jr. as the Balladeer, which brings down the house.  Dressed in a Sunday finest of lime green, with a church lady’s hat, soloist Carolyn Johnson-White comes on stage holding a green lace handkerchief, and looking unsteady, as if she needs assistance, and proceeds to scream and screech and belt out a gospel aria that could cleanse the devil himself.

The soloist’s ensemble is just one of the eye-catching costumes designed by Jesse Harris (based on the original production’s design by Ghretta Hynd.) There is an eclectic mix of  Sunday church outfits, Cab Calloway-cool white suits, the villainous all-black garb of Polyneices, and colorful turbans atop glistening gold and turquoise robes that suggest African royalty.

There is only one obvious concession to the pop-up nature of the “Gospel at Colonus,” which will have run a total of only six performances at the Delacorte: It uses the set from the recently concluded production of “Twelfth Night,” with just a few added knocked down Greek columns. But there was nothing makeshift about the performances. In a speech before the show began, with its 81-year-old playwright (and Mabou Mines co-founder)  Lee Breuer sitting in the front row and its composer Bob Telson in the band’s covered booth stage left, its choir director J.D.Steele, dressed in a bright purple tuxedo, told the audience that this was his 1,879th performance of “Gospel at Colonus.” He, too, was in the original production 35 years ago. It’s the kind of show that stays with you.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

Oedipus at Colonus

Delacorte Theater, Central Park
Book, Original Lyrics & Direction by Lee Breuer
Original Music, Adapted Lyrics & Music Direction by Bob Telson
Co-director Dodd Loomis, scenic design by Alison Yerxa, costume design by Jesse Harris (based on original design by Ghretta Hynd), lighting by Jason Boyd, sound by Ron Lorman
Cast: Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller as The Messenger; The Blind Boys of Alabama (Jimmy Carter, Paul Beasley, Rickie McKinnie, Ben Moore and Joey Williams) as Oedipus); The Legendary Soul Stirrers (Willie Rogers, Ben Odom, Gene Stewart) as Choragos; Wren T. Brown (Theseus); Greta Oglesby (Antigone); Shari Addison (Ismene); J.D. Steele (Choir Director); Tina Fabrique (Soloist); Jeff Young (Soloist); Sam Butler Jr. (Balladeer); Jay Caldwell as Deacon Creon); Kevin Davis (Polyneices); Carolyn Johnson-White (Choir Soloist); and Josie Johnson (Chorus).

Running time: Two and a half hours including intermission.

Free at the Public Theater’s Delacorte in Central Park through September 9th, 2018

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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