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Church parishioners gathered on Thursday evening, not to attend to the teachings of Jesus Christ, but rather to study the final chapter of the life of that ill-fated king of Thebes, Oedipus. Could Sophocles have predicted that “Oedipus at Colonus” would finally find its truest rhythm through the musical incantations of a Pentecostal, Black gospel choir nearly 2,400 years after its first production? Likely not.
When it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 1983, “The Gospel at Colonus” enjoyed such fanatic praise that it scored a televised production two years later on PBS, starring Morgan Freeman in the preacher-like role of The Messenger. That same year, the musical became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rumor also has it that a young Barack Obama caught the performance during his Columbia days, according to one BAM executive who briefly spoke with me about the musical’s history before the first act opened on this year’s production at Shakespeare in the Park.
Last Thursday, the summer’s final heatwave surrendered to torrential downpours until the skies cleared to a silent display of lightning dancing between two clouds far above the Public Theater‘s production of “Gospel” at the Delacorte in Central Park. As crew members quickly squeegeed the stage, those few thunderbolts were like a sign from Zeus, a good omen for audience members, but probably not so great for the cursed, blind Oedipus.
Or should I say, Oedipi? Here, six different actors play the loathed king including five of the Blind Boys of Alabama, a five-time Grammy Award-winning gospel group whose original members starred in the 1983 production. (The quintet for the Public’s show is led by 89-year-old Jimmy Carter, one of the group’s founders, who, even at his age, can still deliver a show-stopping pip and squeal into the mic.) Other songs are delivered by actors and soloists, the Legendary Soul Stirrers, and the nearly forty-member Voices of the Flame Choir led by conductor J.D. Steele.
If the original “Colonus” functioned as a misty-eyed tale of redemption for the Theban king damned by prophecy to marry his mother and kill his father, then director Lee Breuer’s “Gospel” amplifies the anger and adulation manifest in Oedipus’ final act with soaring musical numbers delivered by a choir clad in neon eighties costumes ranging between glossy Easter finery and glittering African garb. Although it’s easy to get lost in the story given “Gospel’s” lax attention to plot, watching the ensemble rejoice and mourn together is a reminder of how Breuer’s philosophy of collaboration in theater was so far ahead of its time. His philosophy of collaboration means that the show’s all-Black ensemble had a direct hand in reshaping Sophocles’ tale. The bond between the director and his actors was extremely evident throughout the production. As singers frequently serenaded the octogenarian in the front row. During the final song of the show, Breuer even wandered on stage to hold hands in a circle with a few of the actors who were present for his original production.
Never would I have imagined that a reconfigured “Colonus” could have such a pertinent political message in 2018 about how society often mistreats Black bodies, even in death. Presented as part of the “Speaking Truth to Power” partnership between the Public Theater and the Onassis Foundation USA, this production of Breuer’s “Gospel” returns to the stage at a moment of crisis for race relations in America. If Black Lives Matter has opened a new generation’s eyes to the daily violence leveraged against Black people in the United States, then “Gospel” is a complementary hymn for living. Breuer’s insistence on finding joy within tragedy is almost too earnest; he constantly tries to fold back the sadness of “Gospel” with songs resplendent enough to resurrect the dead. It’s telling, then, that the first song of “Gospel” is entitled “Live Where You Can” and includes lines imploring the audience to “Be as happy as you can / Happier than God has made your father.” One of the last songs in the musical, titled “Lift Him Up,” has the entire choir belting, “I was blind! He made me see / Crying hallelujah / Lift him up in a blaze of glory / with a choir of voices heavenly.”
It’s hard to understate just how radical Oedipus’ optimism is amid so much tragedy, and how his final decision to die an ignominious death rejects centuries of Greek myth-making tradition. “Gospel” hums a mournful tune for the would-be hero of Thebes whose city now wants him back, if only to fertilize their soil with his corpse. Spoiler alert for this millennia-old play: Oedipus denies his former subjects the pleasure of his burial, expiring alone offstage in some unnamed grove. In his refusal to flower the fields of his enemies, Oedipus’ ownership over his own ashes defies Greek expectations of heroes who seek fame immemorial (in the tradition of Greek epic poetry encapsulated as kleos). After enduring a life filled with hardship, Oedipus wants a peaceful end that only anonymity can grant.
But the magic of “Gospel” is in its complexity. Blind Oedipus may not want anyone to see his death, but his absence is felt so deeply by his two faithful daughters, Antigone and Ismene, who must reckon with their now-directionless fates. The audience is left respecting the Theban king for his resignation while having to contend with the grief of his orphaned daughters who remain on stage crying their eyes out. This is what community is for: the attending gospel choir rushes down their seats amid the set’s scaffolding to console the pair with music so joyous that it even raises a dancing Oedipus from his grave.
“The Gospel at Colonus” ran from September 4–9 at the Delacorte Theater (81 Central Park West, Central Park). Book, original lyrics, and direction by Lee Breuer; original music, adapted lyrics, and music direction by Bob Telson; produced by Sharon Levy/Dovetail Productions, Inc., with associate producer Mabou Mines and co-directed by Dodd Loomis.