That joyful noise known as The Gospel at Colonus has returned to New York for a brief run at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where it continues in free performances through Sunday.
Some 35 years since this truly unique musical premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it remains an exuberant, yet reverent, melding of ancient Greek drama and traditional black Pentecostal rites that last night brought the audience to its collective feet more than once.
Lee Breuer, the experimental theater-maker who founded Mabou Mines, based his libretto on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Years after certain tragic events in Thebes, the blind Oedipus lands in Colonus, where his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are reunited. Fresh troubles arise. Creon wants to shanghai Oedipus back to Thebes for political reasons. Oedipus’ renegade son, Polyneices, seeks forgiveness for his betrayals. Finally, given safe refuge in Colonus and having redeemed his sins, Oedipus goes to a happy death amid general rejoicing by the populace over his spiritual triumph.
To recount this ancient story in a contemporary way, Breuer weaves the traditions of Greek theater, with its chorus and rituals, into the presentational structure of a typical Pentecostal church service that is led by a storytelling preacher and amplified by an interactive choir.
What fuses these elements into The Gospel at Colonus is the score composed by Bob Telson, a dynamic mixture of gospel styles and R&B music that features solo and harmonized ensemble performances, frequently backed by a large choir. Telson’s musical direction for a small band makes savvy use of a purring organ to lend that old-time church-y quality to the proceedings.
This production at the outdoor Delacorte, directed by Breuer (with Telson playing the piano in the band), can be considered historical in that it employs a number of artists who have been associated with the show since its earliest incarnation. The staging sees the role of Oedipus alternately voiced by a singer, a speaker, and in various associations with the several singers who comprise the Blind Boys of Alabama musical group. Other roles also are delivered by individuals sometimes in tandem with other performers. The singing by the principals and the several ensembles is lively and even thrilling at times.
Gravely anchoring the show in the key role of the preacher, who also doubles as Oedipus, is the Reverend Dr. Earl F. Miller, whose authority and dignity is impressive. The singing Oedipus, played by Jimmy Carter, sounds rusty, but such wear-and-tear befits his feeble yet feisty character. Greta Oglesby possesses a voice as golden as the gown her Antigone wears, while Shari Addison, clad all in pink and silver as Ismene, contributes sweet, melodious vocals that cut easily through the massed voices of the ensemble. Sam Butler, Jr. wanders about the stage, strumming guitar and singing soulfully. Kevin Davis dramatically depicts a bad-boy Polyneices. More comical than menacing in his white greatcoat and fedora as Creon, Jay Caldwell suggests a visitor from Guys & Dolls.
And let’s give a special shout-out to Carolyn Johnson-White, who has been with the show since 1983. Later in the second act, wearing a mint-green Sunday best ensemble, she pops up as a little old church lady who then proceeds to set the stage ablaze in the jubilant “Lift Him Up” number that hears her sliding up and down a stratospheric vocal scale while everybody else hoots and hollers and goes musically crazy around her (as does the audience).
Giving the production considerable power is the ebullient Voices of the Flame Choir, who sing and sway in beautiful, multi-print, African-inspired robes that sparkle in the light. Based upon Ghretta Hynd’s original designs, Jesse Harris decks out everyone in costumes that transcend different civilizations. Designer Alison Yerxa’s setting aptly combines a crumbling amphitheater with a tabernacle, accented with stylized columns in the rear and featuring a vast white piano at center stage. Clouds of stage smoke and saturations of colored lighting by designer Jason Boyd lend atmospherics. Breuer’s staging of the performance sometimes presents a ritualistic grandeur and at other points appears totally spontaneous.
With its timely story about a refugee, its excellent company of mostly African-American artists, and its stirring, accessible music-making, The Gospel at Colonus is smart programming by the Public Theater for its metropolitan audience.
The Gospel at Colonus opened September 6, 2018, at the Delacorte Theater and runs through September 9. Tickets and information: publictheater.org