The Black Repertory transforms 560 Music Center

Sabrina Spence | Staff Writer

Every year, The Black Repertory Theatre—The Black Rep, for short—hosts a gala honoring notable black performers, culminating in a performance. This year’s gala took place Saturday, Nov. 3 at the 560 Music Center, featuring a performance of the concert version of “The Gospel at Colonus.”

“The Gospel at Colonus” tells the story of “Oedipus at Colonus,” the Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, in a modern setting—more specifically, a black Pentecostal church. The role of Oedipus is split in two parts. Oedipus is portrayed as a preacher in the pulpit by one actor, while another provides the vocals offstage. His daughters and sisters, Ismene and Antigone, are portrayed by a single actress. Antigone only speaks in the show, while Ismene’s performance is almost exclusively singing. “The Gospel at Colonus” also features a gospel choir acting as the Greek chorus, with soloists and ensembles within the choir being featured on various songs.

The first act focused on Oedipus’ exile and his journey with Antigone to Colonus, the city where he will receive eternal rest. Granted admission by Theseus, portrayed as a pastor, Oedipus and Antigone are joined by Ismene, who tells them that Oedipus is welcome to come home to Thebes. Upon his refusal, Creon, portrayed as a deacon of the church, kidnaps Oedipus’ daughters to incentivize his return. This is where the audience is left before intermission.

Following intermission, the second act takes a much more somber tone. Oedipus is visited by one of his sons, Polyneices, portrayed as a testifier, who asks for Oedipus’s blessing to raise an army against the other son Eteocles in order to take back the city of Thebes. Oedipus refuses, and Antigone and Ismene are returned to their father’s side; Oedipus is granted sanctuary at Colonus, and Theseus then presides over Oedipus’s death, where he finds peace at last despite his long-endured suffering.

By placing this classic work in a more modern setting, the audience was given a new appreciation for classical works. Not only that, but the fact that it is set in a black church makes this show more familiar and easier to understand as well as to enjoy, especially for the predominantly black audience. Given that fact, it didn’t feel like being at the 560 watching a typical concert or production. It felt like sitting in a pew at church, and that is all thanks to the large gospel choir and the deliverance of the text by the Preacher Oedipus, not merely as lines of classical text from a script, but as a pastor preaching a sermon to his flock. The addition of the organ being played to subtly underscore various lines and passages added to the down-home Sunday-church feel.

While “The Gospel at Colonus” is a full stage production, The Black Rep performed the concert version of the show, meaning there was no set or costuming involved, with minimal staging and choreography. The members of the company were dressed in black gowns and tuxedos. What choreography there was, was very simple in occasional arm movements and swaying from the choir. Despite this simplicity, the choir produced a powerhouse sound characteristic of black churches. A quintet with a barbershop vibe added a tone reminiscent of older black churches, gospel artists and songs, like the Williams Brothers, a gospel barbershop quartet, Mahalia Jackson, “Peace in the Valley” and “Precious Lord.”

The most powerful moment of the performance was during Oedipus’s death scene. The moving display of mourning transformed as the choir stood, clapping and singing, and the stage was transformed into a Praise Break. Preacher Oedipus ran back and forth around the podium while Ismene and Antigone clapped and stomped in time to the music. They “took the audience to church,” as they say.

“The Gospel at Colonus” was a show that didn’t need choreography, costuming or a complicated light show; the swell of the music and the familiar gospel rhythms were enough. The idea of a black Pentecostal church lent itself to this continuation of the tragedy of Oedipus delivered as a sermon. It was beautifully and powerfully done.

Interested in seeing a show for yourself? Check out our list of upcoming Black Repertory shows on campus.

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