In the history of theater, there have probably been more surprising pairings than Greek tragedy and gospel music. Still, the combination offered up by the musical "Gospel at Colonus," a reinterpretation of Sophocles's drama "Oedipus at Colonus," is a unique blend of artistic styles that's resonating with audiences.
"The Gospel at Colonus" premiered in New York in 1983, created by influential, experimental theater director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson. Its original script was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was also nominated for a Tony, and now, after going through various productions over the years, it's running at the Ebony Repertory Theater in Los Angeles.
When Wren T. Brown, Artistic Director of the Ebony Rep, and Andi Chapman, director of the theater's version of "Gospel at Colonus," joined us at The Frame studios, we asked them about the first time they saw the original play which is an unlikely mashup of Greek tragedy and gospel music.
Before we talk about the show itself, I want to talk about the audience for the show. I saw this show about a week ago, and the diversity of the audience — by race, age, gender — was unbelievable. Has that been true throughout the run?
Brown: Yes it has been, and in fact it's been the reality of our company and our shows. We're in the Mid-City community and we're the first and only professional African-American theater in the history of Los Angeles. So the work that we do, the work we attempt to do, and what we try to say to this large, 500-square-mile community is that we're another place that is a cultural destination. We've really drawn all kinds.
Wren, you saw the 1985 production of "Gospel at Colonus" at what was then known as the Doolittle Theater in Hollywood. I think that show starred a young man named Morgan Freeman? Well, he probably wasn't that young. What effect did that show have on you?
Brown: The production of "Gospel at Colonus" at the Doolittle in 1985 changed my life. It impacted me in such a way that I have never forgotten the property: the majesty of this work, the fusing of Sophocles and this wonderful Greek mythology with "Oedipus at Colonus," the translation of 1939 written by Robert Fitzgerald, and then so brilliantly adapted by Lee Breuer. That marriage of the pageantry of the black church and the pageantry of Greek mythology was stunning to me.
And then it was populated by some of the most gifted artists I had ever seen. It had always resided in my spirit and my heart, and so of course when we founded the Ebony Repertory Theater, it was always one of the major works that we would need to produce.
Andi, this is your first time direction a full production with the Ebony, so you decided to start with something really modest?
Chapman: Yes, and that's what I said to Wren. "Okay, 32 people...I'm up for the challenge."
What was the challenge? What were the biggest obstacles in getting it to the place that you wanted it to be?
Chapman: I mentioned to the actors that our measure of success would be the joy, the sense of community and togetherness, before it would be about the play itself. And we achieved that.
Greek tragedy's obviously been around for a very long time, and gospel music's also been around for a while. But the combination of these two today feels particularly timely. When you were working on this play, did you feel that?
Brown: Absolutely. I remember sitting at one of our early production meetings and our stage manager raised the question, "Why 'Colonus' now?" I responded to her based on the backdrop of the reality of events in this country, with what's happening with the burning of churches, the slaughter of those lives in South Carolina, and the reckless disregard for black youth and life.
We're facing all of these things with the first man of color as the President of the United States, and with what we're facing as a country from all those perspectives, it's propitiously timed. I felt that, beyond the journey of Oedipus, beyond the redemption that is being sought and that is achieved, it was vitally important to really go down to the bottom and examine where we are as a human group of people.
Chapman: And the lifting up. I absolutely echo what Wren said. It's about lifting one another up. One of the characters says, "I was blind but now I see," and, in essence, Oedipus's journey and tragedy are what we all experience as human beings. We have to somehow find a way to lift each other up, and not tear each other down.
"Gospel at Colonus" runs until July 20 at the Ebony Repertory Theater.