Sophocles was thought to be near 90 when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus, which tells of the iconic figure’s quest for redemption and a final resting place as his tortured life drew to a close.
The Gospel at Colonus was first performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, starring Morgan Freeman. Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s remarkable adaptation transplants this Greek classic into an African-American Pentacostal milieu, and spins it with a tapestry of spellbinding gospel music, with a smattering of blues and Motown as well. Under Andi Chapman’s direction, a new production by Ebony Repertory Theatre captures the full majesty of the story.
The drama begins with a passionate preacher (Roger Robinson) reading to us from the Book of Oedipus as the title character (Ellis Hall), in dark glasses and a pale gray suit, makes his way haltingly onto the stage. Accompanied by the loyal Antigone (Kim Staunton), he’s in search of an honorable burial, beyond the reach of the vengeful Creon (J.A. Preston).
But more than an honorable death, Oedipus now seeks forgiveness and some small measure of regard and respect. He’s done with beating his chest. The terrible acts he committed were carried out in ignorance and without malice towards God or man.
The action takes place on scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s striking, stately set, its towering colonnades artfully nuanced by Karyn D. Lawrence’s illustrative lighting and Tom Ontivereos’ subtle projection design, with its permutations suggesting wind and sky.
Though the writing and the music are both powerful, the particulars of the plot are not always easy to follow. Several lead characters are represented by two performers, one who sings and one who does not. (At one point Robinson’s preacher segues from narrator to the non-singing Oedipus.) Sophocles’ original narrative also seems a bit convoluted, so it helps to have read a synopsis going in. And if you’re a stickler when it comes to the Greek classics, you should know there’s some bending towards Christian theology.
None of this matters, however, given the show’s exquisite harmonies and the sheer power of the vocals, whether they be solo or choral. At various junctures, both Robinson and Hall are riveting. When Polyneices (Gilbert Glenn Brown) shows up in a black leather jacket and jeans to plead for his enraged father’s support, the stage turns electric.
Besides a quintet of singers who act as the chorus within the action, hoofing it up on occasion, there’s the Los Angeles Young Adults of Gospel Music Workshop, a full-sized choir directed by Tony Jones. The band is great, with Jervonney Collier wowing on bass.
GO! Ebony Repertory Theatre at Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 Washington Blvd., West Adams; through July 17. (323) 964-9766 or ebonyrep.org;
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