Thirty-five years ago, Sophocles met an African-American church choir at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The result was
The Gospel at Colonus, which made Lee Breuer virtually synonymous with the Next Wave Festival. This week, The Gospel at Colonus comes back to New York City to bring the Public Theater’s summer season at Delacorte Theater to a spectacular close.
“Most pitiful is this man’s story,” exclaims the church minister who acts as Messenger. In Breuer’s play as in Sophocles’s, the last hours of Oedipus, ancient Greece’s best-known incestuous parricide, are a tale of suffering and redemption, of perpetually unsolved puzzles and merciful death. In one of our age’s most compelling recasts of Classical literature, Pentecostal church service captures the cathartic energy of Greek theater in combining dramatic ritual with musical storytelling.
For the Athenians of Sophocles’ time, as the Onassis Foundation’s president Anthony Papadimitriou recalled in his opening speech, theater was not merely a form of entertainment, but above all a powerful means of stimulating and effecting social change. This is why the questions raised by Oedipus’s story — questions of exile and alienation, public justice and abuse of power — are as relevant in today’s Central Park as they were in the fifth-century-BCE Theater of Dionysus.
Those questions seem to echo in the somber notes of the Hammond organ as the hoarse, raspy recitative of the preacher-narrator (Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller) leads the audience through the complex, unending misfortunes of Oedipus, portrayed by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama as in the 1983 premiere. For their part, Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone (Greta Oglesby) and Ismene (Shari Addison), masterfully alternate lyric monody and dialogic interaction with the chorus (Voices of the Flame Choir, directed by Jeffrey S. Bolding), who vainly strives to soothe their grieving heart with deep, smoothly flowing blues melodies.
As in Classical Greek drama, the chorus is a star in its own right, catching the eye with whimsically colorful costumes and a simple yet strongly communicating choreography. The audience claps along as old Oedipus is welcomed into Colonus, the hallowed resting place promised to him by fate, and the Gospel choir urges him to leave his anxieties behind. The choral performers, however, never limit themselves to whispering, mumbling, and nodding assent to Oedipus’ self-commiserating words — they collectively embody a crucial value underlying the play as a whole: marvel and astonishment at the mutability of human fortune. Thus, the soaring Gospel song that concludes the first act (“Numberless are the world’s wonders”) pays unmistakable homage to the Ode to Man sung by the Theban chorus in Sophocles’
The theme of blindness, prominently featured in Sophocles’
Oedipus at Colonus, reappears throughout Breuer’s rewriting in all its possible variants. “How shall I see you through my tears?,” asks Ismene in one of the play’s most memorable numbers. Hence, the final reversal (“I was so blind, but he made me see,” as Antigone sings in a shrill, high-octave voice) is perceived less as a peripeteia than as a coronation of Oedipus’s parable. Two phenomenal soloists, Tina Fabrique and Willie Rogers, transform the tragic hero’s demise into a triumph, while the center-stage piano becomes a catafalque sinking into the earth. Oedipus has finally “come home” in the syncopated rhythm of a Gospel hymn.
Column fragments give a Greek twist to the familiar Shakespeare-in-the-Park stage
The Gospel at Colonus, co-presented by the Public Theater and the Onassis Foundation USA, runs for free in New York Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, September 4–9, 2018.