The Playgoer: Scholars Corner: The Gospel at Colonus

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Scholars Corner: The Gospel at Colonus

by Matt Roberson

Currently, I am in the final stage of the M.A. program at Hunter College, which requires all students to complete a thesis.  The topic can be of the student's choosing, which is great on one hand, but with much freedom comes great indecision.  I knew I needed to write about something that could keep my interest peeked throughout the process, which for me is asking a lot of any subject.  One certainty was that I wasn't going to be one of the folks who devotes their entire research to one play.  A semester long course on Hamlet had steered me clear of that road.

Then, noted African American theatre scholar Dr. Jim Hatch introduced me The Gospel at Colonus.  Since that time, I have been researching and writing what I hope will be the most thorough survey of the show to date.  Like it or not, because of Gospel, I have become one of those academics.  For those who don't know the show, here is a clip, put together by Minnesota's Ordway Center to promote their recent production of Gospel. (note: this is taken from an outdoor amphitheater.  The giant stones are not part of Gospel's normal set)

In the early 1980s, Lee Breuer and collaborator Bob Telson were touring and developing a 30 minute piece called Sister Suzie Cinema.  In the work, Breuer used an R&B singing group, 14 Karat Soul, to sing the text he had written - sort of a poetic celebration of his affection for movie houses and cinema.  As the play was very short, the two began thinking about creating a companion piece.  Breuer had been thinking a lot about the religious nature of ancient Greek drama, and how it had to have been a much more spiritual experience than most productions of Greek drama he had seen.  Most important to him was the idea of catharsis.  Breuer wanted to create something that brought audiences beyond "pity and fear", and into a more positive, ecstatic state.  His partner, Bob Telson, was playing lots of gospel music for various groups in Harlem and elsewhere.  Telson had also been very moved and impressed by the ability of gospel music to create ecstasy and outpourings of joy in audiences.  From this marriage of Breuer and Telson's personal interest came The Gospel at Colonus.  In 1983, after two gestational years of workshops, Gospel premiered in it's full scale at BAM's Next Wave Festival.  It was the hit of year, and was brought back for two more weeks following the festival's end. 

The work, which I'll get into more in a later post, tells the Sophoclean story of Oedipus' exile through the lens of an African American Christian worship service.  A minister, originally played by Morgan Freeman, enters and with the words, "I take as my text today the Book of Oedipus," the play begins.  While the Preacher does narrate at different moments, and some lines of text are spoken, the story is primarily told via song, all of which are of the gospel genre. For me, Gospel is not only an exciting piece of theatre to watch, but puts me in a state unlike any other show.  In that, it is a truly unique experience, which is why Breuer has been able to take the show across the world, for almost thirty years. 

Coming soon, I'll delve into some juicy bits regarding the play's history, as well as it critical reception. Spoiler alert: Michael Feingold good, Frank Rich bad......

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