PRINT February 1984


THE ART OF THE AFRO-AMERICAN culture-within-the-culture (most easily experienced in popular music) is more immediate to many, both black and white, than the temporally distant, scholarship-encrusted, “high art” Greek drama. One doubts that Thomas Dorsey, often considered the father of gospel music for his pioneering work in the form, ever much heeded the concept of catharsis or other of the notions of Aristotelian poetics, or, for that matter, any of the thought of that heathen people of the pre-Christian era, the ancient Greeks. Classical Greek drama may appear in university syllabuses as a fixture in a liberal education, and the ideas inherent in it and in Greek philosophy are of course fundamental to any broad picture of Western consciousness. But the view many of us have of that picture tends toward the partial. The beauty of the plays persists, but comprises only a shard in the broad sweep of the American style—a style full of cultural fragments, conflicting, mutating, coalescing, both meeting and failing to meet the needs of the many different peoples who are here. Gospel is one such fragment, as American as Detroit, and as far from the academy. This is the context in which Lee Breuer’s The Gospel af Colonus appears: the work is an attempt to square the circle.

Breuer developed the piece in 1982, when a prototype of it toured here and in Europe. A concert version premiered last fall at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, before the opening in New York in November, as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave” series, of this large-scale production, involving five actors, two gospel quintets and one quartet, a forty-member gospel choir, and a nine-piece band. The Gospel at Colonus is as much sung as spoken. The premise: a visiting minister (acted by Morgan Freeman) in a black church chooses as the text for his sermon the story of Oedipus at Colonus, from the Sophocles play, and accordingly the story is part narrated, part acted out, part sung in gospel style by him, the church officers, members of the congregation and choir, and the gospel groups. All five members of one of the groups, performed by Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, play the role of Oedipus, and the choir—here, Brooklyn’s Institutional Radio Choir—takes the function of the Greek chorus. The music was written by Bob Telson, among whose earlier projects with Breuer was the doo-wop musical Sister Suzie Cinema, 1980, a Mabou Mines production which may be understood as a companion piece to the current work. For text and lyrics Breuer used not just Oedipus at Colonus (ca. 406 B.C.), but also passages from the two other plays in Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle. Oedipus Rex and Antigone (ca. 429 and 441 B.C. respectively); the language is heavily rearranged. incorporating new material where necessary, and one feels that various interpolations were supplied by the singers themselves.

The first thing that should be said about The Gospel at Colonus is that it’s exhilarating and moving, at times overwhelmingly so. The most immediately recognizable source of the night’s emotion is the music; though Telson’s Harvard training and Philip Glass–type experience place him outside the gospel tradition, the singers are more than comfortable with his score—in fact, they clearly relish it. And they themselves, without exception, sing masterfully. The gospel tradition features large, massively voiced choirs, which signify a communal unity; their ability to thread their way through delicate syncopations concurs unexpectedly with their straightforward powerfulness. The style in the soloing is expressive, allowing for improvisation in the form of melismatic play, repetition, slowing or halting of the beat, spoken interjections, and so on. With a singer like Fountain there always seems to be a drama as to whether his message may prove just too important to be voiced and he too frail to voice it. The more acute the drama of his halting and pushing out, paradoxically, the more eloquent and strong the expression.

In its pure form gospel is performed mostly in Christian contexts, but since the ’50s it has had a tremendous and ubiquitous influence on singing styles in popular music, and its tropes are widely familiar and widely effective. Were The Gospel at Colonus simply a concert by the musicians assembled in this production it would be potent. But all this music is part of the dramatic structure of the Oedipus at Colonus story, which has its own import; it is the meld of the two that bears significance. The juxtaposition offers a series of dichotomies—contemporary and classical, black and white, popular and “high” art. Christian and Greek, American and European; in orchestrating them Breuer creates a contemporary work from an ancient narrative and a living vernacular music, and winds up with a show that could run and run on Broadway.

Sophocles’ tragedy takes place long after the events in Thebes. Oedipus, blind and old, has been wandering in exile with his daughter Antigone; arriving in Colonus, near Athens, he realizes that he has reached the place where he is to die. The narrative covers the time leading up to and immediately following his death. It is, of course, in the tragic mode—the grandparent of tragic modes, in fact, and like other “post-Modern” spectacles The Gospel at Colonus employs deeply conventional elements. Various staples of Modern theater and literature—the fracturing or distortion of narrative, the absurdism, the antiheroic qualities of the characters—are absent. The story moves in a measured unfolding, and there’s no existential question as to the importance of the events or of the people caught up in them. Breuer pays lip service to current theater practice in such devices as casting five singers to play Oedipus simultaneously; the freedom with which he reworks Sophocles’ text and relocates it in the black church service, feeling no constraint of history, is inherently avant-garde. But these dislocations are quickly subsumed in the work’s majestic pace and its sense of tragic weight.

The bathetic potential in the conjunction of gospel and Greek tragedy seems high in the opening scene, when Freeman declaims, “I take as my text this evening the book of Oedipus—/Oedipus, damned in his birth,/In his marriage damned.” “Mmm-hmmm,” and “well well well,” scattered choristers respond. The two modes’ application to each other is soon clear, however, and it comes clear in a way that raises the question of the function of theater (or of any art). While significant features of the performance of classical Greek drama can’t be reconstructed, it’s known that it incorporated music and dance, and that these were related to religious ritual. Perhaps nostalgically, it may be thought of as the medieval cathedral is sometimes considered—as an art form that expressed deep beliefs shared by an entire community. The Hellenic gods are dead, and for many in the audience of The Gospel at Colonus Christianity is equally redundant. But by posing his play as a church service, and giving it over to performers who treat it as one, drenching it with faith, Breuer not only approximates the circumstances of Greek drama, but regains for it and for theater a sense of ritual force. Gospel, too, is a bodily music; as a religious expression its subject is one of high seriousness, yet it often pushes toward an ecstatic state, a physical transport. It’s a holistic form, and so again evokes one’s conception of what Greek theater may have been like in its fusion of song, poetry, and dance, and again revives a model for what theater might be.

What of one’s own beliefs? The point of culture is the sustenance of those within it. However I may feel about the church, it’s impassioning to see it working in that way. The singers’ quality of grace in The Gospel at Colonus also overcomes my uneasiness about Breuer’s representation of their faith as theater, and non-Christian theater at that. Why question what is delivered with such conviction? Moreover, in Breuer’s handling the Greek and Christian codes dovetail seamlessly. The singers obviously have their own god in mind, but nor Christ nor Zeus nor Apollo is mentioned by name. Another play—Euripedes’ The Bacchae (first produced 405 B.C.), for instance, with its specific Dionysiac mythology—might have proved incompatible with a gospel way of telling, but Oedipus, an old man sitting on a rock, can be Everyman. He has sinned as he was fated to, and he is redeemed. Breuer juggles the story somewhat in favor of his performers, notably when he adds a scene in which Oedipus rises from the dead for the thrilling choral doxology “Lift Him Up.” But crucial lines of text that in this setting seem unmistakably Christian are in fact straight from the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Greek—for example, Oedipus’ parting speech to his daughters: “ . . . one word/Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:/That word is love.”

When the people of Colonus are deciding whether or not to allow Oedipus to stay there, and ask him his race (as they do in one line of both Sophocles’ and Breuer’s texts), the fact that everyone on stage in The Gospel at Colonus is black lends the line a contemporary political force. Oedipus’ need for a resting place or sanctuary, the question of his fundamental innocence, his desire for exorcism—all these translate similarly; so does the fact that Fountain and his quintet are blind, which not only gives their portrayal of Oedipus its own veracity, but places them in a long tradition in black music. In bringing his two sources to supplement each other like this, Breuer makes fresh the power latent in each.

Simultaneously, he produces a work full of coups de théâtre—the moment in the choir’s first piece, “Live Where You Can,” when all suddenly and flowingly rise for the chorus; the slightly melancholy setting for solo voice of the pastoral poem on Colonus, where the “ . . . nightingale/Murmurs all night long,” sung by Willie Rogers, and the J.D. Steele Singers’ plangent harmonies in the “Numberless are the world’s wonders” ode from Antigone; Fountain’s impassioned segments, his left hand shaking as he squeezes out the lines; and more. When J.J. Farley and the Original Soul-Stirrers enter for “Eternal Sleep,” their movements reminded me of the steps Smokey Robinson and the Miracles once performed, and Rogers’ interpolations in the closing hymn—“cry cry cry no more,” which he adds to the choir’s statement, “Now let the weeping cease”—are in the sweetest Sam Cooke tradition as they cross formal poetry with pop embellishments. The Gospel at Colonus; is a popular work; it raises the possibility of unifying in one audience people from many social spheres. This is not its least achievement.

David Frankel is the managing editor of Artforum and a writer on popular music.