Lee Breuer’s 1983 reimagining of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus as a Black Pentecostal church service (featuring music by Bob Telson) didn’t make it to Chicago until 1990. But that local premiere at the old Goodman Theatre (where the Art Institute’s modern wing now stands), featuring the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and “Pops” Staples, among other heavy hitters, remains etched in the memories of those (like me) lucky enough to have seen it.
The Gospel at Colonus
Through 6/18: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; audio description and touch tour Sat 6/10 2 PM (touch tour 12:30 PM), open captioning Sun 6/11 2 PM, ASL interpretation Sun 6/11 7:30 PM; Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $40.50-$82
Court Theatre’s current production, directed by Mark J.P. Hood and Charles Newell (with music direction by Hood) feels right at home and right on time. Although not a “gospel musical” in the strictest sense (“Lift Him Up” is the only traditional gospel song in the show), it’s not hard to think about the role of gospel music in Chicago’s history while watching this show, just a few miles south of Thomas Dorsey’s Pilgrim Baptist Church (soon to be the National Museum of Gospel Music). And with singers like local gospel legend Shari Addison (who delivers the magnificent solo on “Lift Him Up”) and Court favorites like Kelvin Roston Jr. (returning as Oedipus after his 2019 turn in Oedipus Rex) and Timothy Edward Kane (the lone white performer, playing—appropriately enough—the menacing authoritarian Creon), we’re in good hands.
“Think no longer that you are in command here,” the chorus tells us early on while congregating in the aisles of the Court auditorium. But while Roston’s Oedipus may be the victim of a fate that he never chose, he’s soon reminded by minister/chorus leader Eric A. Lewis that “Anger has always been your greatest sin.” (It’s what led him to kill a stranger on the road who was actually his father, and thus end up marrying his own mother and having four kids with her. But let’s not tell the Christian Right, as they’ll probably add Greek tragedy to the banned books lists.)
Blind and broken, led by his daughter Antigone (the plucky Aeriel Williams, who’s ready to take off her earrings and fight when someone points out that her father “has only a daughter for a guide”), Oedipus needs to make his peace before his end. His recriminatory encounter with son Polyneices (Kai A. Ealy), who is waging war on Oedipus’s other son, Eteocles, for the throne of Thebes, lets us know that his redemption in this show won’t end the cycle of family tragedy.
But between “Through My Tears” early in the show and the concluding number, “Now Let the Weeping Cease,” Court’s Gospel at Colonus gives us a glimpse of transcendence, hope, and revival, thanks to a soul-stirring ensemble and a tight five-piece band, delivering their music from above the stage like a session group from heaven. For the rest of the Sophoclean story, we’ll have to wait for Court’s production of Antigone in February 2024.