REVIEW: “The Gospel at Colonus” in Central Park
Take me to church! Or, don’t. To be honest, as a “recovering Catholic”, I am largely agnostic about the pageantry of religious rituals these days. I find the experience of most, if not all, to be emotionally disengaging, if not altogether disingenuous. That said, last night I went to church. Specifically: “The Gospel at Colonus”.
Co-presented by The Public Theater and the Onassis Foundation USA for a free, six performance concert production at the Public’s outdoor amphitheater in Central Park through this weekend only, “The Gospel at Colonus” is a modern, gospel-infused re-telling of “Oedipus at Colonus”—the middle play of Greek tragedian Sophocles’ Theban trilogy (between “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone”) that premiered in 401 BC.
Jumping forward 2,400 years, leaping from the traditions of Greek theatre to the construct of a black Pentecostal service, director Lee Breuer—founder of the avant-garde theatre company Mabou Mines—created “The Gospel at Colonus” in 1983 in a bold and perceptive experiment with theatrical form, presenting “Oedipus at Colonus” as a Sunday sermon delivered by “The Messenger” (Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller).
Good preaching, it turns out, is good storytelling and good drama—especially in the African American tradition. This 35th anniversary revival is a revival, and features more than half of the original cast from the world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s inaugural Next Wave Festival.
The blinded, suffering Oedipus (played by the five members of Blind Boys of Alabama)—having killed his father and married his mother—wanders to Colonus, the promised site of his death. Praying to the Gods at the urging of his daughter, Ismene (Shari Addison), Theseus (Wren T. Brown), King of Athens, welcomes him. “Deacon” Creon (Jay Caldwell) , King of Thebes and Oedipus’ brother-in-law, has Ismene and Antigone (Greta Oglesby) captured, but Theseus returns them before Oedipus dies—sharing with Theseus alone his greatest blessing: the knowledge of life.
“Oedipus” is a tragic tale of redemption and salvation, of hope beyond despair. That makes it an apt story for addition to the canonical parables of Christian tradition. Not much happens in terms of plot action, and there are few characters, which makes it easy to fit into the conventions of a church service. However, as groundbreaking as Mr. Breuer’s concept might have been in 1983 and 1988 (when it played briefly on Broadway), those with no prior relationship to the material might struggle to understand just why it is remembered as being such a thrilling and singular event. I found the storytelling, despite its winning frame, to be muddled and un-engaging.
For those familiar with but skeptical of church rituals, placing this Greek play in the context of a gospel service does little more to amplify the story beyond forging the obvious dramaturgical link between theater and preaching, which is established within the first minutes. What follows is more than two hours of pageantry that may capture the spirit of a Pentecostal service, but is nonetheless slow-moving, and often monotonous.
This second play of Sophocles’ trilogy is the most meditative of the three, and the songs of this production (music by Bob Telson, lyrics by Mr. Breuer) milk moments of reflection and atonement. Gospel music has the power to blow the roof off any structure, but when you’re already in a sprawling, outdoor amphitheater, I fear its power is made too diffuse. Few of the more than a dozen songs struck me as unique or dramatically revealing.
The overarching value of a piece of theatre like “The Gospel at Colonus” is the sharing of traditions that it achieves. Spending a Thursday evening at “church” among thousands of strangers tapping my toes to a joyful gospel number is a special experience I enjoyed and from which I learned. For those who hail from the black church, it must no doubt be riveting and powerful to revel in sharing the gift of their traditions with a larger audience in this performance and through the years.
It certainly had that effect for a young, bi-racial Columbia University student who trekked out to Brooklyn to catch the world premiere in 1983. His name was Barack Obama. And he fondly recalled the experience 30 years later at the White House when he presented the 2013 National Medal of Arts to BAM. To that I say: Amen!
Bottom Line: The Public Theater and the Onassis Foundation USA present a six performance concert of “The Gospel at Colonus” in Central Park; this gospel-infused re-telling of Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” is set at a black Pentecostal service and delivered as a sermon. The concept is genius, the storytelling muddled, and the music a little labored. Nevertheless, it is an experience to be remembered.
“The Gospel at Colonus”
The Public Theater and Onassis Foundation USA
81st Street and Central Park West
New York, NY
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
September 4th-9th at 8:00pm
All tickets free