Review: ‘The Gospel at Colonus’ at Avant Bard

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In 1983, experimental theatre director Lee Breuer wrote and directed a musical that became a worldwide sensation. Blending Black church gospel music and Motown with a story of Greek tragedy, Breuer’s words and Bob Telson’s score created an entirely unique adaptation of Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. No one had imagined such a fusion of cultures thousands of years apart could work, and yet Colonus manages to pull these elements into a parable about the times we live in. Now, Jennifer L. Nelson’s production at Avant Bard breathes new life into this timeless tale.

The cast. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The musical follows the same plot as Sophocles’ of old, with one twist: the entire story is told through the lens of a Black church service, with a deep-voiced preacher regaling the choir and congregation with stories from “The Book of Oedipus.” The Preacher Oedipus, narrating most of the non-musical portions of the show, shares the Oedipus character with his blind Singing Oedipus counterpart. These roles are played alternately with great warmth, earth-shaking wrath and deep sadness by DeMone (Singer Oedipus) and William T. Newman Jr. (Preacher Oedipus), the latter of whom also serves as chief judge on Arlington Circuit Court.

Set after the events of Oedipus Rex, this show tells the story of Oedipus’ later life, having blinded and exiled himself in retaliation for his tragic sins. Guided by his daughter Antigone (Tiffany Byrd), he comes upon the city of Colonus, where a prophecy foretold that he should be laid to rest. He is immediately reunited with his other daughter, Ismene (Ashley D. Buster). The citizens of Colonus initially reject him—in “Stop; Do Not Go On,” they are represented by the chorus (Branden Mack, Rafealito Ross) and Balladeer (Chauncey Matthews) surrounding and hounding him in an effort to keep their city free from the stain of his sin. Their leader Theseus (A.J. Calbert) is swayed by Oedipus’ requests for grace (“A Voice Foretold,”), and allows them to stay. The sinner-turned-refugee is welcomed with opened arms, and all seems well until Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon (e’Marcus Harper-Short), and later his son Polyneices (Greg Watkins), appear, desiring to use him for their own ends. The Women’s Ecumenical Choir provides additional vocals and audible reactions to the stories being told, aiding the idea of a church service.

The cast. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Jennifer L. Nelson’s production favors intimate spirituality over the “megachurch” setting of previous interpretations. Set Designer Tim Jones places the show on top of a hill, with the piano and drums (played by Harper-Short and Abdou “CleanHandz” Muhammad, respectively) sitting at the top, directly next to the preacher’s pulpit. Leafy canopy hangs from above. Combined with Lighting Designer John D. Alexander and Sound Designer Justin Schmitz’s lifelike outdoor atmosphere that culminates in a thunderstorm at one point in the play, the production evokes the idea of a spirituality connected with nature and alludes to the Greek tradition of producing theater out in the open. The audience becomes a part of the action as actors walk through aisles and directly address people; they aren’t so much onlookers as part of the congregation, wrapped around the stage and moved to participate and respond in the tradition of black churches.

Costume Designer Danielle Preston dresses all the actors in their Sunday best, with Greek-inspired flowing dresses for the women and suits and ties for the men, all in rich, royal colors and with a bit of an African touch to pattern and design.

Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus is a celebration of intense emotion. The story is one of human failing, but also of redemption and the potential for kindness, and it is told in great part through music: mournful, dark, joyful, celebratory, and always flowing from the powerful energy of the performers. Oedipus’ story becomes not so much a tragedy as a celebration of love, especially when it comes to giving refuge to outcasts—a message that still resonates today, perhaps even more than the playwright originally intended.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

 The Gospel at Colonus plays through March 26, 2017 at Avant Bard performing at the Gunston Arts Center, in Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808 or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Review: ‘The Gospel at Colonus’ at Avant Bard by Julia Hurley.

In the Moment: Q&A With Bob Telson, Composer of The Gospel at Colonus – Now Playing at Avant Bard by David Siegel.