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Tue, 11.08.1983

The Gospel at Colonus Premiers

*On this date in 1983, the Gospel at Colonus premiered.  This production is an African American musical version of Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus.  

It premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival until December 1983. The following year it received a production at the Arena Stage in Washington DC, running from November 23, 1984 – December 30, 1984.  The musical ran at the American Music Theater Festival, Philadelphia, in September 1985. The Gospel at Colonus came to the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, Ga, in 1987. It opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March 11, 1988, in previews, officially on March 14, 1988, and closed on May 15, 1988, after 61 performances and 15 previews.

Directed by Lee Breuer, the cast featured Morgan Freeman (Messenger), Sam Butler, Jr. (The Singer), Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama (Oedipus), and the Institutional Radio Choir of Brooklyn. Breuer was nominated for the 1988 Tony Award for his book. Overview Breuer and Telson handed the storytelling duties to a black Pentecostal preacher and his church choir, which enacted the story of Oedipus's torment and redemption as a modern parable. They employed the unusual device of casting The Blind Boys of Alabama to collectively portray Oedipus as well as the Institutional Radio Choir in Brooklyn and Chancel Choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Other casting innovations in the performance include multiple actors in single roles, such as when The Messenger is called upon to assume the role of Oedipus in tandem with the singer cast when the role calls for stage motion that would be difficult for the blind singer to negotiate alone. The diversity of Oedipus's daughters and one son appear collectively (with Jevetta Steele as Ismene, her sister Jearlyn Steele doubling for actress Isabell O'Connor as Antigone, and brothers JD and Fred Steele standing in as Polynices and Eteocles. With actor Kevin Davis doubling as Polynices), and, indeed, with different portions of the cast, singly and in groups, assuming the duties of the traditional Greek chorus.  

The New York Times's Mel Gussow has expressed the view that the result was translating the Greek myth into a Christian parable. In his review of the BAM production, Gussow noted: "It is surprising how organically "Oedipus" can fit within the framework of a gospel musical... the evening has the shape of a church service."

In 1985 PBS televised the original Brooklyn Academy of Music production at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia as part of the Great Performances series. The performers included Morgan Freeman as The Messenger, Carl Lumbly as Theseus, Jevetta Steele as Ismene, and Robert Earl Jones as Creon. In the 1985 incarnation, The Soul Stirrers (credited collectively) and the Institutional Radio Choir assume roles as citizens of Colonus. The musical was a finalist for the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical won the 1984 Obie Award as Best Musical. The show had a brief run-on Broadway in 1988.

The Gospel at Colonus was at the Apollo Theater, New York City, in October 2004 and at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, Los Angeles. It also came to the Ebony Repertory Theatre and was nominated for the 2015 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for theatrical excellence.

Reference:

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