By Donna Herman
I know, I know, you’re a jaded New Yorker and you don’t blink when you spot a celebrity, you don’t pay retail and you NEVER wait in line for anything. Well my darlings, get over yourselves and drag your fabulous behinds to one of the five locations where tickets to The Gospel at Colonus are being given out every day for that evening’s performance. And do it now because the last performance is Sunday, September 9th. Despite the waiting in line thing, you’ll still hold your New Yorker card. Tickets are FREE, and this is THE kickoff cultural event of the season. And oh yes, like you, it’s FABULOUS!
Which is no doubt why The Public Theater decided to do a 35-year anniversary production of it. And the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park is a perfect venue for Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s The Gospel at Colonus. Because what made it a sensation 35 years ago, Breuer’s revelatory link between Greek drama and the modern Gospel church service, is still reverberating today. And perhaps in deeper and more universal ways.
Set in a black church, The Gospel at Colonus tells the story of Oedipus through the lens of a gospel service. The Messenger (Reverend Dr. Earl F. Miller), who is the Preacher, takes for the text of his sermon the fictional “Book of Oedipus.” As he tells us the “story” of Oedipus (The Blind Boys of Alabama featuring Jimmy Carter with Paul Beasley, Ricky McKinnie, Ben Moore and Joey Williams), he sometimes takes on the character too.
And like in ancient Greek theater, The Messenger is aided by a Chorus (Voices of the Flame Choir), that in The Gospel at Colonus is the church’s choir. There’s an amazing wealth of musical talent involved in this production both performing and creating the magnificent gospel songs. The music is by Bob Telson and lyrics by Lee Breuer, in some cases adapted directly from translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. It’s remarkable how well suited to the Gospel treatment of Bob Telson’s inspirational music these words are.
The character of the Choragos (The Legendary Soul Stirrers: Willie Rogers, Ben Odom & Gene Stewart), which in ancient Greek theater was the leader of the Chorus, here serves as a kind of utility outfielder. Ben Odom plays bass in the band, Willie Rogers reprises two of his solos from the original 1983 production “Eternal Sleep” and “Now Let The Weeping Cease” and adds the acapella “Fair Colonus,” and as a unit they perform in various capacities throughout.
But the vocal talent doesn’t all come from musical groups in this production. Everyone sings and there’s not a clunker in the bunch. In truth, The Gospel at Colonus could almost be classified as an operetta rather than a musical – there’s that much singing in it. Heart-pumping, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, glorious singing. Which, after all, is the whole point.
It’s long been accepted that theater has its roots in religion and ritual. Which is the human way of trying to make sense out of the often painful and frightening experience called life. In the end, The Gospel at Colonus is a sort of allegory for the story of Job. Oedipus, having been cursed before he was even conceived with committing grievous sins, blinds himself gruesomely and wanders around a beggar with his daughter Antigone. But he never loses faith, and finds sanctuary at Colonus, and a painless, glorious death. He is delivered out of the darkness and horror of his life by a sweet and painless death.
The two songs at the end are “Lift Him Up” and “Now Let the Weeping Cease.” “Lift Him Up” is a rousing, get-up-out-of-your-seat gospel number started by a soloist (Carolyn Johnson-White) who gets up out of the audience in her Sunday best and begins to sing acapella. This is right after Oedipus’ daughters have been told he has gone to die and they are lamenting him. At first, the soloist sings impossibly high notes with no words as she makes her way to the stage. When she gets there, she commands it and begins to sing the words and is joined by the band and the choir:
“LIFT HIM UP IN A BLAZE OF GLORY WITH A CHOIR OF VOICES HEAVENLY”
And the final song, a slow hymn at the very end of the play “Now Let The Weeping Cease:”
“NOW LET THE WEEPING CEASE LET NO ONE MOURN AGAIN. THE LOVE OF GOD WILL BRING YOU PEACE. THERE IS NO END”
The Gospel at Colonus, Book, Original Lyrics and Direction by Lee Breuer; Original Music, Adapted Lyrics, and Music Direction by Bob Telson
WITH: Reverend Dr. Earl F Miller (The Messenger); The Blind Boys of Alabama (Oedipus); The Legendary Soul Stirrers (Choragus); Wren T. Brown (Theseus); Greta Oglesby (Antigone); Shari Addison (Ismene); J.D. Steele (Choir Director & Soloist); Tina Fabrique (Soloist); Jeff Young (Soloist); Sam Butler, Jr. (Balladeer); Jay Caldwell (Deacon Creon); Kevin Davis (Polynices); Carolyn Johnson-White (Choir Soloist); Josie Johnson (The Acolyte); Chorus (Voices of the Flame Choir)
MUSICIANS: Butch Hayward (Organ); Bob Telson (Piano); Sam Butler, Jr. (Guitar); Ben Odom (Bass); Drums (Leroy Clouden)
Produced By Sharon Levy/Dovetail Productions; Associate Producer, Mabou Mines; Co-Director, Dodd Loomis; Dovetail Production Manager, Eamonn Farrell; Scenic Design by Alison Yerxa; Costume Design (based on Original Design by Ghretta Hynd) by Jesse Harris; Lighting Design by Jason Boyd; Sound Design by Ron Lorman; Production Stage Manager, Babette Roberts