Lee Breuer, the lauded, Pulitzer-nominated adapter of works by the Greek tragedian, Sophocles – specifically the middle play of the Theban Series, “Oedipus at Colonus” – once read that Zora Neale Hurston, the revered Harlem Renaissance poet and anthropologist, always thought that “the closest equivalent to the passion of ancient Greek tragedy in our society could be found in the black sanctified church.”
That theory proved to be inspiration when Breuer and composer Bob Telson’s “The Gospel at Colonus” had a short but acclaimed Broadway run in spring 1988. Since then, the modern-day parable has played everywhere in America and abroad, more church than theater and still bringing audiences to their feet, loving a performance that, as one regional critic wrote, “has a story with an ending and music to lift the soul.” It is now at Ujima Theatre Company’s upstairs TheaterLoft home.
We meet Oedipus, the scorned, accused murderer of his father, he of an incestuous relationship with his mother – all false charges, he swears – as an old man. Blind and dressed in rags after wandering for years, he’s a pariah, accompanied and guided by his daughters/sisters, Antigone and Ismene. They’ve arrived at Colonus, on the edge of Thebes, where Oedipus will die, a fate foretold. Before his demise, though, he must clear the books, so to speak, tell his side of the story. He does, fighting off the dastardly Creon and his own son, whose pleas to return home smack of ulterior motives to the aged one.
A dozen or so songs tell of all this, the Preacher/Balladeer/Messenger leading a Chorus, whose individual members leave their rostrum post to play a role, sing or lead the rest in questioning the old man, gradually praising or comforting, eventually grieving. Bob Telson’s score produces one show-stopper after another: “Stop! Do Not Go On!”; “Who Is This Man?”; the hand-clapping “Never Drive You Away”; the beautiful, a cappella “Fair Colonus,” with the wonderful, nightlong powerhouse Zoe Viola Scruggs; “Lift Him Up”; and the closing, epiphanic “Now Let the Weeping Cease.”
Lorna C. Hill directs an involved cast that is hesitant in the early going but with little lasting damage. It includes members of the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and their God’s Purchase Gospel Choir, as well as Ujima veteran Dwight Simpson and charismatic choir leader George L. Brown. Among many young singers and actors are the impressive London Lee, the regal Zhanna Reed and the animated Terence A. McKissick Jr. – clad in Greek-like garb with bright African colors. Karen Saxon does yeoman work as musical director and on the keyboard.
Sophocles wrote of the individual seeking truth and self-understanding. Director Hill seems to stress this, deeply respectful of ancient text, Breuer’s interpretation and the pulsating score, adding much jubilation when forgiveness comes to the fore and faith is restored. And then, now or someday, the “cursed shall be blessed,” like Oedipus. There’s electricity here, as well as hope, high-energy and catharsis. Alleluia.