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Review: 'Gospel at Colonus' at the African-American Rep
by Jerome Weeks 10 Jun 2010

The African-American Repertory Theater in DeSoto is finishing its second season with its first full-scale musical. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the theater’s choice is a daring one – and it pays off.


Clockwise, starting top left: Kristal Jemerson, Eleanor Threatt, Simone Gundy, Gil Pritchett, Regina Washington, Terrence Charles Rodgers and Sheran Keyton Goodspeed

The African-American Repertory Theater in DeSoto is finishing its second season with its first full-scale musical. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the theater’s choice is a daring one – and it pays off.

  • KERA radio review:
  • The Dallas Morning News review
  • Expanded online review:

Imagine the scene. Oedipus, the king, has been a despised outcast for murdering his father, sleeping with his mother and bringing down a plague on his city, Thebes. But now, after all his wanderings and sufferings, Oedipus has found his final resting place, a sacred grove of trees near the town of Colonus. There, for the first time in years, his daughter, Ismene, sees her sister Antigone and their blind, old father – just as he’s about to die.

This is what she sings.

Song: ‘How Shall I See You Through My Tears?”

“Father, sister, I hear your voices

But am I dreaming?

Or are you here right now?

Can you tell me

How shall I see you through my tears?

Please tell me

How shall I see you through my tears?

I want to know how

How shall I see you through my tears?

If that doesn’t give you an emotional shiver, you may need a heart transplant. That clip was from the original Broadway production of The Gospel at Colonus. It’s adapted from the classic Greek drama, Oedipus at Colonus, the final play that Sophocles wrote about his tragic king. Think of it as Oedipus: The Sequel. In 1985, two experimental theater artists, playwright Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson, founders of the avant-garde troupe Mabou Mines, took the play and transformed it into a contemporary black gospel service.

That sounds like a pretentious, post-modern contrivance. But Greek tragedies were part of religious festivals; we’ve lost much of their original, spiritual power. And the great themes of Oedipus at Colonus – suffering, redemption, forgiveness – these are great Pentecostal themes as well.

On Broadway in 1988, The Gospel at Colonus was a thunderous event. It featured a huge choir from Harlem, and Morgan Freeman was the principal preacher. When I saw it, it also had an amazing bit of casting. The gospel group, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama – all of them – sang the role of Oedipus. You may well have seen it, too, because PBS televised a 1985 Philadelphia version of that stage show in 1988 on Great Performances — and it was finally released on DVD last year (right).

So it’s a sign of just how ambitious and gutsy the African-American Repertory Theater is that when they decided on a musical to cap their second season, they chose this – not The Wiz, not Ain’t Misbehavin’. Obviously, the little company in DeSoto doesn’t have one-twentieth the resources of a Broadway show. We’re talking about a cast of 10, a two-piece band and a set that finds a ruined Greek temple sporting potted plants and electric candelabra.

But none of that matters. What matters is that Breuer and Telson got two things right – great music and great sermons — and these the African-American Repertory Theater definitely delivers.

Breuer and Telson, for instance, purloined a famous speech (“Polla ta dhina”) from Sophocles’ play, Antigone, just to create the beautiful and haunting song, “Numberless Are the Word’s Wonders.” Numberless are the world’s wonders, goes the argument, but none more wonderful than man. He can do so much, yet even he cannot do one thing: “In the cold wind of death, he cannot stand.”

If the general argument sounds familiar, many scholars believe Shakespeare consciously echoed the speech in Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy. It’s a brilliant bit of borrowing by Breuer and Telson because the sentiment  reflects both the Greek original and many Biblical passages — one of those occasions when Colonus fuses together the two traditions it draws on.

Under director Sonya Ewing Andrews, the three chorus singers who handle backup on this number and others — Kristal Jemerson, Eleanor Threatt, Simone Gundy — raise the Motown girl trio into a thing of beauty and grandeur, they’re like impassive Greek deities, the goddess of the Afro and the silky harmony. With a song like “How Shall I See You Through My Tears,” Sheran Keyton Goodspeed, who plays Ismene, can stab you to the heart and make you want to dance. Regina Washington does not sing a solo, but with her large, sad, dark-rimmed eyes, she’s like an  image of the sorrowing Antigone from an urn.

As for preaching, Gil Pritchett should be on any area theater’s short list to play Othello. The Greek drama and the African-American church are a mix of the very formal and the nakedly emotional – and Pritchett has the rousing voice and the easy, stately bearing to make you watch him, even as the singers tear up the joint.

It’s hardly a perfect show. The characters of Creon and Polyneices are cartoonish, Creon especially. But in reducing The Gospel at Colonus to fit their space and budget, the African-American Repertory Theater has made it even more direct and personal.

It plays like a storefront church service, and it feels like a blessing.

Music out: “Never Drive You Away.”

  • Quintine Perry

    You GO Eleanor!! So proud of you!! Hey Sheran!!!!

  • LeNora Devine

    This play was wonderful! I now want to get the DVD and see the original. If I had the time, I would go back and see it again, and again, and again….