The gods must be cranky. What else could explain the sound system snafu that ruined the first act of The Gospel at Colonus? Fortunately, I had seen the show performed elsewhere recently, so I could follow along (even as I covered my ears to escape the distorted voices). So this is a review of the second act, during which the microphones managed to cooperate (although still not perfectly) with the excellent singers, well-rehearsed by musical director Johari Jabir. Black gospel and Greek tragedy are unlikely partners, but in Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's Gospel at Colonus, the coupling works well. The St. Louis Black Repertory Company's production, however, is a mixed blessing: It excels musically but not dramatically.
The play is set in a contemporary American church, where members of the congregation take on roles in the final chapter of the Oedipus story. Director Ron Himes fails to clarify this dual character identity, leading to confusion as the play progresses and characters move between their Oedipus roles and their church roles. Breuer and Telson divide the part of Oedipus between several actors. In its best moments, this device has the effect of doubling the anguish we feel as Oedipus struggles with his fate. A.C. Smith as Preacher Oedipus and Drummond Crenshaw as Singer Oedipus dazzle with their outstanding vocal skills, but the division of the story between them is often more puzzling than enlightening. At the end of the play, after Singer Oedipus has descended to the underworld, Crenshaw mysteriously reappears. It's not clear if he's coming back as the character Oedipus or as a member of the congregation returning to hear Preacher Oedipus riff on the story.
J. Samuel Davis (as the balladeer) provides the play's most engaging performance. From the moment of his entrance, when he pauses to pray and prepare, we are drawn to his honesty. He is our touchstone through the play, commenting on the action, speaking for us and to us, moving easily between the church setting and the Oedipus story. Elizabeth Van Dyke and Norissa Pearson as Antigone and Ismene, the daughter-sisters of Oedipus, break our hearts when they mourn for their father-brother. The show builds to a satisfying emotional conclusion, particularly for those of the Christian faith. Every single singing voice in the show is outstanding, and the final hymn, proclaiming the hope of love and peace, brought the audience to its feet.
The story of blind, outcast Oedipus seeking sanctuary at the end of his life is not nearly as exciting as the more familiar tale of how he kills his father and marries his mother. This script has no such shocking revelations, making it harder for the production to pull the audience into the agony of Oedipus and his children. Himes doesn't use his strong cast as successfully as he could, often staging the characters in the Oedipus story in stiff poses that are more distracting than dramatic.
Set, lighting and costume designs are beautiful but also add to the confusion and slow pace. Scenic designer Chris Jones blends contemporary church pulpits with an ancient Greek amphitheater, but the expansive set trips up the action as actors cross the wide stage and march up the long staircases to the pulpits. Lighting designer John Wylie provides a gorgeous backdrop of clouds and blue sky, but in complex scenes the audience often struggles to figure out where to look. And whoever is responsible for the fog machines should rethink their use; their noisy spitting pulled focus away from the action. Reggie Ray's costumes successfully blend Greek and church attire for most of the characters but don't help clarify when actors stop playing their Greek roles and become congregation participants.
Setting Oedipus within a church service is an inspired idea. While this production doesn't live up to the script's potential, it does provide many moments of brilliant vocal beauty, and the notion of Oedipus as a Christ-like guide is satisfying food for thought.