The ancient Greeks took to the stage with joyous dancing and choral singing thousands of years ago, even before they created the timeless tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. So why not a black gospel choir and spirited liturgical dance from the African-American tradition?
It’s not often we see the Greek tragedies enacted, but for an accessible, touching and creative riff on the themes of despair and redemption look no further than The Gospel at Colonus now raising the roof again at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington for a reprise production from last season, this time featuring gospel recording star Kenton Rogers.
Take a moment to remember King Oedipus, perhaps the most truly pitiful character among the Greek tragedies. Orphaned, he wandered through the countryside and killed a man along his route. He outsmarted the riddle of the Sphinx and continued to help Thebes thrive again – or so he thought. Prophecies of doom and gloom followed the man who would be king, claiming incestuous and murderous crimes beyond his belief. As time crept up on the King of Thebes, Oedipus lost his wife after finding out he had indeed killed his father and unknowingly married his own mother and had four children with her. Jocasta’s suicide was the easy way out; he took her golden brooches and ripped out his own eyes, to be lead by his daughter/sisters Antigone and Ismene, finally coming upon a holy site called Colonus.
It is here in Oedipus’ warped trajectory that co-creators Lee Breuer and Bob Telson meld an African-American church experience with the tale as old as several millennia. Focusing on the concept of home, and the redemptive power of family, The Gospel at Colonus takes the fallen and blinded king to the lowest point only to raise him up again through the act of pleading his case through the music of gospel and blues.
If you are a purist about your Sophocles, this is not that kind of a show. But the roots of both the American black church experience and the lost rituals of the Greeks cross-pollinate to make a vibrant flower of song and dance.
The Gospel at Colonus
closes March 25, 2018
Details and tickets
Witness the commanding voice and manner of Preacher Oedipus, here, as last year, enacted with authority by William T. Newman Jr. Newman’s preacher sets the tone for the inviting and enveloping experience. He passes the staff to Kenton Rogers who takes the role of Singer Oedipus, whose blues tinged, voice roars out with a rough edge and a palpable passion. Both Newman, speaking and Rogers, in song, have the fervor of a fire and brimstone preacher which helps to paint the portrait of the tainted Oedipus.
The middle play of the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus, gives insight on the state of Thebes after Oedipus blindly flees: civil war between his sons, as recounted by daughter Ismene (Jessa Marie Coleman.) Daughter Antigone – a lovely performance by Ayana Reed – has stuck with Oedipus and become his eyes to the world. Brother-in-law Creon – taken on by musical director e’Marcus Harper-Short – and even the heroic Theseus (A.J. Calbert) visit the lowly Oedipus in his spartan new home. As this version of the ancient play presents it, whether Oedipus is a pariah or paragon, it is how others see him that is the heart of the story. And how a community treats the lowest of the low that shows the true mettle of a people.
Framed artistically by a set that captures both Greek elements – fallen columns, an amphitheatre – and a traditional church designed evocatively by Tim Jones, The Gospel at Colonus also features excellent work by Gregory K. Wright, as Choragos and Rafealito Ross, as the Balladeer, as they interact with Oedipus and his daughters.
Another phenomenal contribution to the production is Minister Becky Saunders and her vibrant Women’s Ecumenical Choir, Alexandria, VA, who have extended their ministry by joining this show. With close harmony and distinctive costumes, these ladies add their voices to the church-like experience, ably supported by Harper-Short on keyboards and Jabari Exum on percussion.
Avant Bard has been known for bringing a new twist on the classics since 1990. Taking a Greek tragedy to new levels of passion and depth through a Black gospel experience is just one example of how a company like Avant Bard keeps theatre relevant and connects to contemporary audiences.
The Gospel at Colonus by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson . Directed and choreographed by Sandra L. Holloway . Original direction by Jennifer L. Nelson . Featuring: William T. Newman Jr., Kenton Rogers, Ayana Reed, Jessa Marie Coleman, A. J. Calbert, e’Marcus Harper-Short, Greg Watkins, Gregory K. Wright, Rafealito Ross . With Minister Becky Saunders and the Women’s Ecumenical Choir: Angela Adams, Angela R. Gray, Sandy Taylor Hopkins, Robin Walker Shanks, Kimberly A. Young . Music direction by e’Marcus Harper-Short . Scenic design by Tim Jones . Costume design by Clare Parker . Lighting Design by John D. Alexander . Properties design by Jose Munez . Stage manager: Keta Newborn . Produced by Avant Bard . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.