Glorious church music carries Court’s ‘Gospel at Colonus’

While the ‘Oedipus’ adaptation sometimes struggles to clarify what is sermon and what is Sophocles, the songs stir up plenty of joy.

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Kelvin Roston Jr. (center, with Shari Addison and Eric A. Lewis) plays Oedipus in the Court Theatre’s “The Gospel at Colonus.”

Michael Brosilow

If you attend “The Gospel at Colonus” at the Court Theatre — and despite flaws, you should go for the music — get ready for Church.

“The Gospel at Colonus” is an adaptation, by the late Lee Breuer, of Sophocles’ last work, “Oedipus at Colonus.” Although written just before Sophocles died, the play is set chronologically between his two other works about the House of Oedipus: the most famous of the three, “Oedipus Rex,” in which Oedipus learns that by attempting to outrun a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he has in fact done just that, and “Antigone,” which takes place after Oedipus’ death and focuses on his daughter. This middle part of the story depicts Oedipus, blind and weakening, seeking a final resting place, which was prophesied to bring benefits to the community who provided it.

Breuer’s fundamental conceit was to treat this Greek mythic story, which wrestles with questions of guilt, sanctuary and redemption, as if it were a biblical text, a “gospel,” and to embody it as part of a ceremonial sermon delivered at a contemporary Black Pentecostal Church, replete with gospel songs incorporating Sophocles’ poetry, composed by Mark Telson.

It’s Oedipus preached.

‘The Gospel at Colonus’

Untitled

When: Through June 11

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Tickets: $40.50-$82

Info: courtheatre.org

Running time: 1 hour and 25 minutes with no intermission


Breuer, an auteur writer-director who founded the theater company Mabou Mines, directed “The Gospel at Colonus” first for Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983 and several times after, including on Broadway in 1988 and in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre in 1990. It also aired on PBS’ “Great Performances” in 1985, with the original cast, including Morgan Freeman as the preacher who leads the congregation in the telling of the story. Oedipus was portrayed by the gospel group The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and the show was supported by a full-on chorus of several dozen singers.

The Court’s artistic director, Charles Newell, was one of the many people who considered seeing that production an ecstatic, and career-determining, experience.

Not only has Newell directed this version — in partnership with Mark J.P. Hood, who is listed as both co-director and music director — but he seems to have based the theater’s presentation of the entire Oedipus trilogy on the fact that this would be included. Choosing singers was likely part of his plan when he cast “Oedipus Rex” in 2019 with Kelvin Roston Jr. in the title role, and with Mark Spates Smith, who plays the preacher and King Theseus here, as the chorus leader. It seems a pretty sure bet Aerial Williams will continue her role as Antigone, with Timothy Edward Kane as her antagonist Creon, when that play is produced next year.

It’s certainly a bold and ambitious approach to the trilogy, and these leads are all great performers, but this also creates special challenges specifically for the Colonus tale. Newell’s take here almost seems to be battling the adaptation, setting it in on a stage that would work perfectly well for a traditional production of Sophocles’ play. John Culbert’s elegant set design has the framework of a building behind it and the rock that represents the sacred ground where the play takes place.

The problem is that this design and the rest of the production don’t come across as a ritualized church sermon, but as a church’s production of the play, which fundamentally pulls against the very concept of the adaptation and muddles what we’re witnessing and our ability to interpret and embrace it. Until the end, Roston Jr. is full-on embodying Oedipus here — including ambling around a multi-step stage with a walking stick and a blind man’s sunglasses — rather than playing a church member presenting Oedipus, and that leads to distracting confusions, including about the polytheistic references and the monotheistic perspective.

In many instances, I couldn’t tell when other performers were going one way or the other — acting or preaching. The show does need to move between the two, but we do need to know which at any given moment.

Fortunately, we still get the overall notion that the show probes, via an African American perspective, complex and deeply human problems — sins, familial strife, notions of free will and fate — on the way to celebrating life. Breuer himself described his goal as presenting a theater that went past the notion of catharsis — the experiencing of pity and fear — to joy.

We don’t get the catharsis here, but, thanks to phenomenally well-sung gospel music, we do get the joy.

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