I’m going to shift my spotlight away from neglected books for the first time to draw attention to the long, long-overdue release on DVD of the 1985 PBS “Great Performances” production of the Lee Breuer/Bob Telson landmark show, “The Gospel at Colonus”. Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about memorable theater experiences. He and his wife had seen “The War Horse” at the National Theatre in London, and he said the first sight of the horse puppet, designed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, sent a shiver up his spine.
I told him I had the same reaction to the opening moments of the theatre production of “The Lion King,” when the dancers, in Julie Taymor’s incredible costumes, begin to come onto the stage from the wings and through the aisles. “I think there have only been three or four times I’ve had that reaction something in theater,” I said, but my mind instantly went blank when I tried to think of the others. And then it hit me: “The Gospel at Colonus”, of course.
It was in 1990, when my wife and I went to see Breuer’s revival of his 1985 production for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. About 10 minutes into the show, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama enter from the left wing, dressed in shining silver tuxes. They are the collective, choral Oedipus. “Daughter, lead me on,” Fountain calls out, and Jevetta Steele, playing Ismene, begins to lead them in a classic sufferin’ gospel show trudge, toward center stage. From the right wing goes out a shout: “Stop!” The Soul Stirrers, as the defenders of Colonus, all dressed in deep burgundy suits, with Sam Butler, Jr. on guitar in the lead, begin moving out to stop them. “Stop, do not go on,” they sing. “This place is holy. You cannot walk this ground.” A vocal battle of sorts then erupts, as the Oedipi come on and the Soul Stirrers push back. With each step, the tension mounts. Behind, a large gospel choir sways back in forth to the rhythm of the march. Butler and Fountain come face to face, duking it out: “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” Finally, in frustration, Fountain lets out with a wild, falsetto howl that slices right through to the heart. I had tears in my eyes, it was so thrilling.
I had first heard about “The Gospel at Colonus” in the Village Voice back in 1983, when it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the academy’s Next Wave Festival. I was intrigued at the whole concept of the show: an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy, “Oedipus at Colonus” in the music of modern American black gospel. I was already a big fan of black gospel music. But the fact that Breuer had been able to enlist the participation of not just the Five Blind Boys but the Soul Stirrers left me dearly wishing I was living on the right, not the left coast.
Fortunately, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame was also a fan of the show and arranged to release an original cast recording on Warner Brothers Records in 1984, and I swooped my copy up the moment it hit the racks. I copied it to cassette (remember them?) and played it over and over in the car. Some critics have written that “Stop! Do Not Go On” is the only memorable song from the show, but having listened to the album at least a hundred times over the last 20+ years, I think this is unfair and seriously wrong.
Virtually even number is good enough to take its place alongside the best gospel tunes of the last fifty years. “How Shall I See You Through My Tears?”, Ismene’s plaintive cry for her long-lost father is matched Oedipus’ desparate wish that the Lord would “Life Me Up (Like a Dove)”, so that “I could look with the eyes of the angels/For the child that I love.” The joyous resolution of the choir’s answer to Oedipus’ plea to find a resting place: “Live where you can/Be happy where you can.” The stunning oratio of “Numberless Are the World’s Wonders”, in which the singer lists all the powers of man, spiralling up to a series of “From every wind/He has made himself secure”, only to end with the chorus reminding us, “From all but one/In the late wind of death he cannot stand.” And the stomping, rousing celebration of the peace Oedipus finally finds: “Lift Him Up.” These songs are among the most moving I know.
Although “The Gospel at Colonus” only ran for about two months when Breuer took it to Broadway in 1985, he’s managed to stage a number of revivals at fairly regular intervals, so that by now, the show has been performed over 1,000 times. A second recording of the songs from the show, with mostly the same cast members as the first, was released in 1985 and is now available on CD (although I personally prefer the Warner Brothers version).
PBS recorded a performance in Houston in 1985, when Morgan Freeman was still playing the speaking Oedipus, and showed it on their “Great Performances” series. This was briefly available on VHS tape, but it’s effectively been out of reach until a month or so ago, when NewVideo finally issued it on DVD. Given the show’s record, this release may disappear just as quickly as all the past revivals and recordings, so I urge everyone to buy or rent a copy and see while it’s still available. The video quality is not the best, being just a digitized version of the first release without any apparent touch-up. But the power of the music, the performances, and the visual impact of the staging easily overcomes this shortcoming. Until you have that once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it live, don’t stop and do go on to see it now and DVD. Your life will be richer for it.
“The Gospel at Colonus”
Book by Lee Breuer
Based on “Oedipus at Colonus,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Antigone” by Sophocles; Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone” adapted by Robert Fitzgerald; Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” adapted by Dudley Fitts
Music by Bob Telson
Available from New Video (ISBN: 1-4229-1948-X)