In the program for Gospel at Colonus, the musical co-creator Lee Breuer notes that "Zora Neale Hurston made the connection between Greek tragedy and the sanctified church many years ago, and The Gospel at Colonus is proof of her hypothesis." And in many ways, it is.
The Gospel at Colonus opened at the Gaillard Auditorium last evening, replete with an Afro-Greco dressed chorus, a preacher/messenger, good guys and bad guys, love and hate, disappointment and joy, and gospel singing and shouting. There's been a lot of buzz around town about this production and, if the two long ovations — one before the end of the show — are any indication, some of those expectations were met.
Entering the theater, the stage is set with a stone-looking wall with its porticoes and parados (choral entrance in Greek theatre) placing you, perhaps, somewhere in Greece. There was a piano downstage right, covered in a multi-colored cloth that, had it not been for its sheen, could have been a quilt. There was a lectern and short stools, steps leading up to a riser like seating in front of the wall. See where I'm going? Note the parallels and connections to both traditional ancient Greece and the traditional African-American church. Before the first actor moved toward the stage, Alison Yerxa's set was beginning to do its job. Admittedly, having seen the very slick and highly technical set on Broadway, I immediately began to chew the inside of my cheek, clucking like my grandmother and making "hmm" sounds. I was terrified of being disappointed. This set was not what I was expecting.
Oh, but ye of little faith. When Jason Boyd began to use the set as a canvas for his extraordinary lighting design, I could feel the relief pour over me. The lighting design for the show is like an additional character onstage. There were some funky projections and break-up patterns. We had the moon and the ocean and flowers blossoming before us. The lightening utilized near the end of Act II, along with Ron Lorman's sound design of the loudest, cloud busting, God-calling, wall-shaking blast of thunder was perfection and so, too, was Oedipus-Messenger's exit to his death as he walked into a light-filled, smoky haze, reminding Theseus that no one was to know where his final resting place lay or curses would rain upon them. The Chorus, having already been ordered by Theseus to look away, lifted what initially appeared to be regular church fans but as the lights hit them, each turned into a shimmery silver refractor. Very cool.
As the show begins, the choir from Royal Missionary Baptist Church, clad in costumes that had a Greek form with African prints, began to stroll down the aisles of the theater, waving and smiling, and chatting up the audience as they made their way onto the stage to much applause. It felt like church. The theater came alive; the choir members, now the Greek chorus for the story, took its place as other members of the company, about to be participants in the night's church service, entered, dressed in brighter solid colors, and more luxurious fabrics, easily separating them from the mass of people onstage.
The Messenger, originally played by Morgan Freeman, takes his place at the lectern and speaks directly to the audience. I held my breath; having seen Morgan Freeman's work, I needed this actor, Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller to speak directly into my soul as he uttered the opening lines, "Think no longer you are in command here." Interestingly, Rev. Miller's bio informs us that it was under his tutelage that the original company of Gospel "observed and studied the style of the black preacher." But Morgan Freeman is an actor's actor. His storytelling was clear and engaging from the first word; it took a little longer with Rev. Miller but he got there.
And to be fair, this is no easy task. The audience member who walks into this play without some prior knowledge of what they are seeing would serve themselves well to read the notes provided in the program and understand, too, that we are not just audience but fellow congregants in the largely presentational production. Theatre conventions are immediately introduced to subconsciously inform the audience they are going to be participating in the evening's show. The Chorus walks through the audience; we see actors walk onstage and wave and chat and the Messenger speaks directly to us. Like in the Greek theatre, the onstage Chorus provides assistance to the audience, demonstrating for us what we are feeling; like in the black church, the choir encourages the actors through call and response, standing and giving a holy wave when something is said that viscerally resonates within, demanding an external recognition. And we, as an audience, are encouraged to participate the same way.
Know, too, there is not just one Oedipus (as illustrated by using the Blind Boys of Alabama); there are two ... or maybe it's five. Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys take on the role of Oedipus, as does Rev. Miller. Two Oedipus's — one can see and one can't. A story within a story within a story. Stay with me.
Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama, all Oedipus — although only Carter speaks the role — enter the stage, and it's game on. Dressed in the same style suit from the original production (original design by Ghretta Hynd), a silver grey silk double breasted suit with white socks and white shoes, Carter proceeds to sing some of the longest notes in history. In Act II, his singing causes the audience to leap to its feet, sure the production was over. It wasn't. But more on that in a moment.
Oedipus is stopped at the city gates, hallowed ground, and told to come no further. Sam Butler, Jr., the original Balladeer (and the reason Bob Telson, the composer and onstage pianist, met and worked with the Five Blind Boys), sings a rousing, "Stop, Do Not Go On," albeit with smoother tones than the growls I remember so well from 26 years ago. Joined by the Legendary Soul Stirrers (both gatekeepers at Colonus and, inside the church, I'm guessing they are ushers since they wear gloves), the show takes off with the gospel singing that marked this piece for greatness, garnering nominations for Tonys, Pulitzer Prizes, Emmys, Grammys, etc. But, in the midst of all that singing, there is still a story being told. Oedipus's last days, spent as an exile and wandering with his daughter-sister, Antigone, is accepted at Colonus, and lo and behold, his youngest daughter-sister Ismene (the amazing Jevetta Steele) finds him to bring him good news. He is no longer cursed but blessed; whomever he curses shall be cursed and whomever he blesses shall be blessed. Oh. And his sons, who are his brothers, are fighting over his throne of power. Kids. What are you gonna do?
When Theseus, king of Athens, played by Jeffrey Bolding in an all white ensemble and whom we've met in the church already, agrees to allow Oedipus to stay, Act I takes off. The audience, which was working hard to understand what was happening and who was whom up to this point, suddenly woke up and joined the jubilee happening on stage. The song, "No Never," wiped us out; it was a joyful explosion of song and energy and suddenly, if you knew nothing else, you knew Oedipus was safe for the moment.
After this point, the story becomes infinitely easier to understand because suddenly the story is being told crisply and we are fully engaged. Enter Jay Caldwell as Creon, the new king of Thebes, dressed in black and white and followed by two henchmen who reminded me of the Blues Brothers and who were hysterical as they echoed Creon's clearly unctuous, dishonest plea for his former king to come back to Thebes where all is forgiven. The residents of Colonus, the Chorus, threateningly invite Creon out of their city but not before his henchman have kidnapped the two daughter-sisters, further grieving poor Oedipus. Poor Oedipus. Killed his daddy, married his mama, gave birth to his sisters and brothers. Can the man catch a break?
Oedipus laments at the top of Act II, but Theseus finds his daughters, returns them, and is about to get jiggy when one of the son-brothers, Polyneices, arrives in Colonus to request a blessing from his father. After a reprimand that made me want to weep as the two men fold in and out of each other's voices as they sing their disappointment in "Stand By Me/You Break My Heart," all that is left for Oedipus to do is die. And die he did.
Bernardine Mitchell, who plays Antigone regally, begins the mourning process, and it is a powerful series of moments ending with us returning to "real time" and a soloist, Carolyn Johnson-White, appearing out of the audience singing in the most authentic voice, running the scale and making the hair on my arms stand up. And suddenly, again, the stage explodes with energy as the choir joins in "Lift Him Up."
It was at some point during this song that the entire company appeared onstage and the Charleston audience was up on its feet, clapping and dancing and stomping their feet. And clearly some audience members thought the show was over, as they made their way out of the auditorium, the way audiences will as if getting to their car first will net them a special prize or something. But the show wasn't over. Anybody who attends a black church knows if you leave before the benediction, you miss your blessing. The Messenger tied the story up, explaining its larger meaning, and then, of course, there was more singing. Those who stayed, got their blessing: a story with an ending and music to lift the soul.