The Ordway Center’s decision to include “Gospel at Colonus” in the 2010-11 season (details here), provides me with a nostalgic opportunity.
The Ordway’s production reunites some of the performers who were in the musical when it was staged at the Guthrie Theater back in 1987 and subsequently followed it to Broadway — including the Legendary Soul Stirrers, the Blind Boys of Alabama (back then they were billed as Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, all of them portraying blind Oedipus) and the Steele family.
If only they could persuade Morgan Freeman to come back to reprise his performance as the Messenger — wow, that would be a coup. It was Freeman’s magnificent speaking voice, along with his gravity and dignity, that held the piece together for me when I saw it at the Guthrie. From a conceptual standpoint, I thought there was a lot of pretentiousness in Lee Breuer’s attempt to merge Sophocles with gospel music — and, explicitly, with gospel-church Christianity.
But Breuer was enthusiastically pretentious and really, really dedicated. Best known through his association with the experimental theater collective, Mabou Mines, Breuer and his cohorts are practitioners of gestational theater, often building and reworking a piece over a long period of time. “Gospel at Colonus” had been staged in various forms for several years before it reached the Guthrie, and I remember Breuer telling me that he had attended every single performance. He also declared that he planned to see every performance at the Guthrie — and that he would probably give notes to the actors after every show. Talk about a control freak.
Pretentious or not, “Gospel at Colonus” was impossible to resist, with all its joyous, thunderous, emotional singing. While the narrative of the story comes from “Oedipus at Colonus,” Breuer and composer Bob Telson mined other material, including the famous “Numberless are the world’s wonders” chorus from “Antigone.”
I was so taken with the treatment of that poetry that I went back and re-read a translation of “Antigone.” My father, a retired Presbyterian church executive, was in town for a visit and he listened patiently as I read aloud the musings about man’s triumphalism over all things, save but one: the cold wind of death.
“Very famous passage,” my father remarked, which should have reminded me that he had spent many years in a classical education. But I was full of myself.
“Oh, so you’ve read it before?” I ventured.
“Well, yes,” he replied. “But not in English.”
Chastened, I went back to see if I’d used the word “pretentious” in my review of the Guthrie show. Thankfully I hadn’t.