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BWW Reviews: Playhouse's GOSPEL AT COLONUS Finds Sophocles 'Holy Rollin'

While watching THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS, the African-American version of Sophocles' OEDIPUS AT COLONUS as created by Lee Breuer (with music by Bob Telson), I was reminded of the reimagining of the Old Testament by Marc Connelly in the 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning THE GREEN PASTURES. Like GOSPEL, THE GREEN PASTURES serves up time-honored material by transposing it to a religious setting;. PASTURES relates the Old Testament as envisioned by a young Afro-American boy; thus, Heaven is one big fish fry. When I first saw the 1936 film version (which Connelly, a white man, scripted for Warners' director William Keighley), I found it a special experience -- a wonderful all-black cast was an anomaly for a young viewer in the late 1950's and early i60's; now, with the passage of time (and legislation), I can understand why modern audiences would find it politically incorrect (though that cast is still peopled with some amazing talent). Interestingly, Mr. Breuer eschews following Connelly's suit, and though he utilizes a Black minister and church service to tell his tale, he focuses instead on an ancient Greek tragedy rather than the Old -- or New -- Testament.

There's really more of a connection here than might be evident. Sophocles' plays, as well as those of his contemporaries, were part of a greater, religious festival; and poor sightless Oedipus, whose hubris has angered the gods and twisted up his family tree so thoroughly that a genealogical chart would resemble a maze as imagined by M.C. Eshcer, might well find a counterpart in the Old Testament's poor old "Job." In the first of three plays to explore the fate of Oedipus and his family, OEDIPUS REX finds the young king unknowingly responsible for the death of his father and, later, incest-by-way-of-marriage to his mother Jocasta, who, once realizing that she has given birth simultaneously to her children and grandchildren, not only finds knots in her stomach but also in a noose. Blinding himself, Oedipus leaves his daughters Antigone and Ismene and his sons Eteocles and Polyneices to the care of his harsh brother-in-law Creon; and that's where Sophocles continues the legend with OEDIPUS AT COLONUS (though ANTIGONE, the final play in the trio, was actually written before).

As the Preacher/Oedipus (Leslie Reddick) relates the story of the blinded pariah, allowed sanctuary by Athens' "Theseus" in a grove outside Colonus, we find that the location of his last days will be filled with blessings and prosperity. Thus, Creon (representing Eteocles and Thebes) and "traitor" Polyneices (who wants to reclaim the city from his brother) both suddenly show interest in a man (and relativve) whom they had coldly neglected. Tended by his spirited daughter "Antigone," the long-shunned former king must now contend with both.

GOSPEL AT COLONUS is a very faithful evocation of the Oedipus story; in fact, the lyrics are basically the text of the original -- only emotionally heightened by the music and singers. (It is significant that the main attractions of these ancient plays were, in fact, the chorus -- singing and dancing were actually considered more important than the individual actors.) Breuer evidently saw the connection between the ancient services and those of a Pentecostal meeting; the Choragos Quartet (splendidly performed individually and collectively by Marcus King, David Schell, TeKay, and Don Thomas) provides the main commentary of the Greek chorus, while Ms. Reddick and Curtis C. Jackson divide the role of Oedipus (I like Mr. Jackson's Ray Charles-shades). (By the way, this shift-shaping of characters is something I'm becoming accustomed to, having seen four actress/singer interpretations in SIMPLY SIMONE just last week at Hattiloo.)

Having taught OEDIPUS AT COLONUS, I am especially pleased with Mr. Breuer's interpretation and Director Tony Horne's inventive staging of it; the play is usually left "on the back burner" when Sophocles stakes out his territory in a literature class. It has long been ignored in favor of OEDIPUS REX or ANTIGONE. However, for dramatic and musical purposes, it's really the better choice: At least there's some uplift (literally and figuratively), as the long-suffering Oedipus is finally spirited away in a mysterious, glorious ending, thus assuring the audience of some spiritually uplifting music (and the show-stopping final curtain number is one of the best -- and best performed -- I have seen on a musical stage this year).

In addition to Mr. Jackson, the always welcome Claire D. Kolheim combines her strong singing voice with some effective emotional thesping, Rainey Harris (at least, in her initial meeting with her long-lost sister and father) is joyous and spirited in "How Shall I See You Through My Tears?", stentorian Bill Andrews is a strong and cunning "Creon," and John Maness has powerful moments as the repentant-but-spurned "Polyneices." The Choir is, frankly, amazing; and Emma Crystal (looking like a young Darlene Love) has created some effective dance movements.

The musical numbers to which Sophocles' lines have been set are, at different moments, emotionally raw, spirited (in the best Clara Ward Singers-style), and even "doo wop" ( I could swear I heard the Five Satins on one of those numbers). (There isn't much room for humor in the piece, but those "Stop!" gestures in "Stop, Do Not Go On" could have been lifted from an old Supremes television appearance.)

The elegant set design by Kathy Haaga utilizes a couple of impressive columns, "stone" steps for the choir, and a pulpit for the preacher, but that is well in keeping with the simplicity of the original Greek presentation; the costumes by Rebecca Y. Powell and PatRice Trower are, for the most part, colorful choir robes (though the individual performers -- i.e., Oedipus, Antigone, Ismene, Polyneices -- have their own distinctive flair).

Director Horne is as blessed with talent here as poor Oedipus was beset by "woe and misery," and he (along with Mr. Breuer) has taken a potentially dry subject and infused it with talent and taste and -- yes -- even joy. Had a collection plate been passed during the standing ovation, I would gladly have emptied my wallet. Through July 12.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)