But once the performance begins, the time for analysis will cease as the spirit and energy of the performance takes hold.
This is The Gospel at Colonus, the latest production by the JSU drama department, which weds the final chapter of Sophocles’ trilogy of King Oedipus with the joyous fervor of an African-American church service.
At first, it might sound like an odd pairing, but given some perspective it actually makes perfect sense, explains JSU professor and director Susan McCain.
“It’s based on the idea that in order to understand redemption, one must have first suffered,” she says. “And that’s where the idea of Oedipus and his suffering is paralleled with the suffering of African-Americans, who find so much of their redemption in their church services.”
Set years after the Greek king has murdered his father and married his mother, The Gospel at Colonus opens to find a blind, old and frail Oedipus, banished from Thebes, wandering along the outskirts of Athens.
In order to set the proper mood while also catching the audience up with what has happened previous to Oedipus’ arrival in Colonus, there will be a short film, titled God’s Smiling Lightening by Trace William Cowen, a junior English major at JSU.
“We’re focusing on the stark image of a black bird, which serves as a dark omen of things to come,” he says. “There’s also a lot of violent imagery that foreshadows what’s to come for Oedipus and the terrible turns his life takes.”
The title comes from a line in the play’s monologue and will also feature music by Kanye West to keep audiences in a “contemporary frame of mind,” Cowen added.
Written by award-winning director Lee Breuer, alongside longtime collaborator and composer Bob Telson, The Gospel at Colonus officially premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, was taped for a PBS special in 1985, played on Broadway in 1988 and has since toured the world — starring Morgan Freeman and The Blind Boys of Alabama (collectively performing as Oedipus).
But the idea was born some 20 years earlier when Breuer was wandering around the ancient ruins of a Greek theater in Turkey and stumbled over a rock that turned out to be a Dionysian altar. In ancient Greece, religion was divided — those who followed Apollo and those who followed Dionysus.
It was then and there that Breuer decided to combine a Greek tragedy with a modern church service. And while they may be separated by a millennia — at their core, the Greek tragedy and the uproarious nature of the black church service are kindred spirits, Breuer said in a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“What happens in a church service emotionally happens in the theater, too,” he says. “The key quality that the church and theater share is catharsis. In Greek tragedy, you create pity and terror. In the religious sense, you add joy and blessedness. I think that we’ve been so successful over all these years because the show combines all these qualities.”
As for the JSU production, the audience itself will become part of the show as cast members are apt to dance and sing across the aisles, getting into the spirit.
“This is all one big revival,” McCain says. “The goal is to have everyone moved, motivated and emotionalized.”
It will also be educational. Friday’s 10 a.m. performance is free and open to area schools, while the evening performance is Pay as You Will, because McCain firmly believes “anything of value is worth giving away.”
And because Sophocles’ tragedy remains true to original settings, theme and prose, it will serve as an engaging introduction to the literary classic, especially for high school students.
“Learning it this way, as opposed to in a classroom lecture, is what will really makes it stick,” McCain says. “You’ve got all that music beneath it, all that emotion beneath it, and all that movement beneath it.
“That’s the way we learn — through our senses.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org