What do you get when you mix an ancient Greek tragedy and a Pentecostal church? How about a hippie musician and a visionary theater practitioner? Still don’t know? Well, if you are in attendance at the Gaillard Auditorium next week, you will discover exactly what comes when these seemingly disparate worlds collide. The Gospel at Colonus is a retelling of the Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus set to music in the African-American gospel tradition.
The Gospel at Colonus premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival in 1983 and was nominated for an Off-Broadway Theater Award in 1984. In 1985, PBS filmed the play as part of the Great Performances series, for which it won an Emmy. In 1988, it played at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre on Broadway and was nominated for both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize.
Bob Telson, the composer, met Lee Breuer, the artistic director and founding member of Mabou Mines, in the late 1970s and began a collaboration that includes the doo-wop opera Sister Suzie Cinema, Gospel at Colonus, and The Warrior Ant. “In 1979, I went to see a play of [Breuer’s] that was a work in progress. He asked me to write some additional music for it, and I did. And we worked together on some other things. Anyway, my role was to turn Lee on to new things.”
That’s the easy stuff to wrap your head around. Sort of. The question is how did this Paris-born Jewish Brooklynite come to write gospel music?
“OK, so here’s the story,” says Telson. “I was, what? Twenty? This hippie from Brooklyn, a Jewish hippie from Brooklyn, who wasn’t religious at all, I’m still not, but there is something about Colonus. About a week before I visited my first black church, I’d heard Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album and I dug it. A lot. And I wanted to hear more. I wanted to hear singing like that, so I put on my one suit, hopped into the subway, and headed uptown to Harlem and 125th Street. I got out and stopped at the first nice church I saw because I wanted to hear the singing. Well, I ended up in this really beautiful church, right? Really beautiful with a huge choir and a great preacher who, at some point, told any visitors to please stand up, and I did. He asked me what I did — I was the only white person and I was a hippie and all these people were dressed so beautifully — and I told him I was a musician. He asked me what instrument I played, and I told him piano. He then tells me to come up and play something. And I played the one song I knew, ‘Nothing is Wrong with My Jesus, Something is Wrong with Me.’ Well the church started singing and I kept playing and they kept singing and, I can tell you, that had never happened to me, that kind of energy in a church. Never happened in any temple I’d been in, I can tell you that!”
I can handle that story. I too joined my church because I liked the singing, but I haven’t written any gospel music. Knowing there was more, I pushed him to tell me more. “So I was this musician in New York, had a band — had a couple of them — and somebody was telling me about this cat that played guitar and sang in another band. He was playing somewhere in New Jersey and so I decided to go take a listen. Well, it just happened that evening Sam [Butler, the singing guitarist in Gospel] was on strike. He was mad at the owner or something and was sitting at the bar, refusing to sing. I sat next to him and started talking and then a couple of weeks later, he invited me to hear him and his band in Harlem. I did. And we started working together. He means the world to me. He introduced me to this idea of talking with the audience, and, really, it was preaching. He’d break the band down and tell these stories in between and people would cry or whatever. He was the son of a preacher, so it came really naturally, and although we were playing R&B and top 40, he’d bring the house down. He also played with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and got me on a gig after we’d split the band up. Now this was before Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys were famous, before the white audiences heard them. We’d be doing these little churches, on a set with other amazing musicians and gospel vocalists and one night I invited Lee.
“I had him come see us and he came up with this idea on the spot. We’d never talked about Colonus or Oedipus or anything and then, well …”
Getting clearer? So you’ve got Lee Breuer with his crew, including the brilliant Philip Glass, creating avant-garde cutting edge works in downtown New York City at Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theatre or at the Public when the Public was the Public because Joseph Papp was at the helm. Add to that this creative hippie who loved music, all music, world music, and his crew that just happened to be gospel vocalists and also blind (the Five Blind Boys of Alabama), and wham — magic.
And then there’s Nigel Redden, the director of Spoleto Festival USA, who knew Breuer in the early ’70s from his time at La Mama. “I think I met him in 1972 when he was with Mabou Mines, and I was at La Mama. Essentially, I was the office. I had to write the checks. Lee would come by, and he always — well, we would talk. I’d not yet seen the work when I started at La Mama but obviously have become quite aware of it since. And Lee and I talked, established a relationship.”
When Redden was at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minn., Breuer called and asked him to find a gospel choir to work on the project. “I suggested J.D. Steele, and he and Jevetta became involved, along with other members of the Steele family.”
J.D. Steele ended up conducting the huge choir and his sister, Jevetta Steele played the role of Ismene, singing one of the most well-known songs from the show, “How Shall I See You Through My Tears.” And 28 years later, the Steeles are still very much involved.
“You’d be surprised,” says Telson. “Most of the original company is with us when we do the show. Look, this show was my blessing. I am not a religious man, but there is something about Colonus that just makes it one of my favorite things to do. And one of the great things about doing this show is you work with all kinds of talented people who bring great things to the work.”
Telson says that when the company is performing Gospel at Colonus, either he or Steele visit local choirs in the African-American church community and invite them to do the show. In Charleston’s case, that choir is from the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. According to Redden, “J.D. was coming to town with a list of choirs he might listen to, and he heard a number of them and found this one was most suited to what the needs of the show are.”
Makes sense. I’ve seen the original production at BAM, and I saw it again at the Lunt-Fontaine. I’ve been lifted out of my pew, hands raised and heart racing at the sound of Royal Missionary Baptist’s anointed choirs, and I can tell you, they will fit the call-and-response and musicality of the show with ease.
And lest we forget, there is also Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the last of Sophocles’ three Theban plays (Oedipus the King, Antigone) and the one that chronicles the impending death of the blinded and exiled Oedipus, who has left Thebes after badgering Tiresias, the seer, to tell him the skinny on why the city was being punished. Hubris, plain and simple, caused Oedipus Rex to declare that he would curse and drive out the cause of the plague on his adopted city. Tiresias, a blind prophet who has retired to the hills to live out his life, tries his cryptic best to get out of informing Oedipus that not only was he the cause but — just as the oracle foretold — he was both son and husband to his mother. He had killed his father, and his children were also his siblings. The Greeks knew how to tell a story.
Oedipus, with his daughter Antigone as his guide, comes into Colonus but is immediately stopped because it is hallowed ground. This is where the Telson-Breuer collaboration picks up. “This is a production that seems to be uniquely drawn for a Spoleto audience. It’s really old, this story of Oedipus at Colonus, and when Lee was thinking of this play, conceiving this play — the Greek choir was so easily represented by the choir of an African-American church. He was able to see the contemporary value to the story and a unique way in which to share it so that it would have relevance and modernism and would seem unique and familiar to our lives. Telson’s music is wonderful and the Blind Boys are simply amazing,” Redden tells me.
“And think of it. This is music that came to the United States through our ports, through our importation of slaves through Charleston. So, in one way or another, Charleston was responsible for the melding of cultures that contribute to American music.”
Nigel Redden doesn’t have to sell me. If I could, I’d see it every night just to watch Royal Missionary’s choir, conducted by J.D. Steele, make the audience feel like they’re experiencing the most vibrant church experience of their lifetimes. I’d go just to watch this former hippie play piano. I’d go because I’ve always loved the Greeks. And you should go too.
Joy Vandervort-Cobb is a playwright, performer, and associate professor of African American theater and performance at the College of Charleston.