A joyous and timely revival of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s revelatory musical, The Gospel at Colonus, closed out the summer season at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, in a sadly abbreviated one-week run. This 1983 game-changer easily could serve as an anthem for the midterm elections, given its themes of reckoning, responsibility and redemption – not to mention the torment of exile from one’s own land.
The production marked a homecoming of sorts for a show that has entered theater history, gaining countless devotees in 35 years of itinerancy since its debut at the inaugural Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Playwright Breuer had been inspired by composer Telson’s love of gospel performance in Harlem and his duties as organist for the legendary singing group Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
Breuer reconceived Sophocles’ haunting postscript to Oedipus Rex, in which the shamed blind king and his daughter Antigone spend his final years roaming from their homeland, Thebes, before finally arriving at Colonus, where he has been promised death in grace. In Breuer’s version, the 2,500-year-old play is framed as a gospel service whose subject this Sunday is “The Book of Oedipus.”
The service is led by a narrator (Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller) and includes a brief history of Oedipus before turning to the powerful tale of his sacrifice and redemption. Ingeniously, Oedipus is played by the Blind Boys of Alabama (as they have since the show’s premiere), and the service is augmented by several choruses (in this case, The Legendary Soul Stirrers and The Voices of Flame choir) led – again, since the original production – by the irresistibly charismatic J.D. Steele.
Together they have ample opportunity to dazzle with the musical’s most extraordinary feature, the gospel songs written by Breuer and composed by Telson. These numbers, rousing, deeply felt, literally spirited, have the sanctified ring, rhythm and roar of authenticity, a hallmark of Telson’s chameleonic composing gifts. (He probably is best known for his scores for the films Bagdad Café and Salmonberries.)
Remarkably, more than half the cast in the Delacorte production, staged by Breuer, participated in the original production and its many iterations, including 89-year-old Jimmy Carter, a founding member of the Blind Boys. This production was the best of the many I’ve seen (including a brief Broadway run in 1988), in part because its patina of age suffused the performance with an earned sense of survival in hard times. An affecting weariness could be felt even in the most robust numbers, while the more spiritual songs (“How Shall I See You Through My Tears?” “Sunlight of No Light”) had a mesmerizing, incantatory beauty.
Breuer was not the first to suggest a connection between Greek myth and Christian liturgy. It’s a superficially appealing idea given their use of drama and spectacle to instill in worshipers the sense of a moral universe. Below the surface, it kinda falls apart. After all, the Greek tales have no deity, or too many deities. The late writer George W.S. Trow might have called it “the theology of no theology.”
Sticklers, then, might take offense. But their protest would be drowned out by the waves of ecstasy emanating from the stage and enveloping the audience in that unifying religious conviction: love.