Review: Makes Me Wanna Shout! Court Theatre Presents The Gospel at Colonus—Oedipus Redeemed

Something about the sound of a really good gospel singer makes me want to tap my foot or clap along. The Gospel at Colonus sends adrenaline through me and I could feel that vibe all around me at Court Theatre. These are great gospel singers in the tradition of Pentecostal or Church of God in Christ. The play is a musical rendering of the Oedipus Story like none other. This musical is masterfully directed by Mark J.P. Hood and Charles Newell.

The Gospel at Colonus was conceived and adapted by Lee Breuer in 1983 with music by Bob Telson. Court Theatre has assembled a group of singers and actors from the Chicago gospel scene that raises the roof. I saw quite a few familiar faces in the ensemble that have been in Black Ensemble Theater (BET) productions under the auspices of Chicago theater legend Jackie Taylor. I remember Kelvin Roston Jr. at BET in 2011 starring in The Jackie Wilson Story. I wasn't sure if it was the same person until that smooth gospel-tinged voice came booming out. Roston is astonishing as an Oedipus journeying to redemption. His voice, moves, and inflections sound like Sunday morning on the South or West Side. Roston's performance bursts with emotion. His ferocity in confronting Creon (Timothy Edward Kane) and calling out his son Polyneices (Kai A. Kelly, riveting in a short appearance) as a liar.

Oedipus is first accompanied by another BET alum, Aeriel Williams as Antigone. I last reviewed Williams and Jerica Exum in Women of Soul at the Mercury Theater. That musical also featured Jessica Brooke Seals who also lit up the stage in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Seals plays the Evangelist in Gospel at Colonus gloriously with talkbacks and urging the characters on as if in a Black church. Mark Spates Smith narrates the story as Theseus and sets the tone for Oedipus as a universal story of downfall, forgiveness, and redemption.

Sin or downfall, forgiveness, and redemption are the basis of the Pentecostal tradition. No matter how egregious the sin, there will be a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Oedipus unknowingly married his own mother and sired children with her. When Spates preaches that his daughters are also his sisters, the chorus chimes in with "Lord no! Say what?" and cries "Tell it!" Oedipus gouges out his eyes when he realizes his great sin and is banished from his kingdom of Thebes. Like Paul in the Bible, he is forced to wander in blindness dependent on the alms of strangers.

The Chorus is made up of voices that started in the Black church just like the greats—Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and others. There is a true star of gospel music in the chorus who takes the spotlight. That is the incomparable Shari Addison (also Choragos) whose voice hits the highest notes with incredible power. Addison sang in the 1000th performance of The Gospel at Colonus at Carnegie Hall and was friends with Lee Breuer and Bob Telson.

Shari Addison. Photo by Joe Mazza / Brave Lux.

The songs in The Gospel at Colonus are steeped in a Black gospel sound that emanates from hundreds of churches in Chicago and other cities that received the Great Migration. A Pentecostal church service is an experience of faith with shouts, whoops, and getting the Holy Ghost. I was raised believing that the Holy Spirit / Ghost landed on the apostles as bursts of fire and they began to speak in tongues and shout in ecstasy receiving that blessing to preach the gospel. That belief is what sustained thousands of Black people under Jim Crow and then when they faced racism in the North as well. That belief was expressed most beautifully in music.

The songs in The Gospel at Colonus are each a revelation unto themselves. Sophocles wrote Oedipus as a cautionary story but the songs in this musical are titled to mirror the journey of Jesus. "Jubilee (Never Drive You Away," "Eternal Sleep," "Lift Me Up (Like A Dove)," and "Lift Him Up" featuring Shari Addison, are titles that reflect the Christian tradition. Those songs were highlights for me, but all 17 could be Gospel Greatest Hits. The musicians are also familiar from BET. The moment associate music director Mahmoud Khan hits that Hammond organ, the shouting and waving of hands in the audience began. The band included Joshua Griffin on bass, Amr Fahmy on keyboards, Oscar Brown Jr. on lead guitar, and Leonard Maddoz Jr. on drums.

I highly recommend The Gospel at Colonus as an uplifting tale of Oedipus performed by a spectacular ensemble of actors and singers that lifted the audience on opening night. It will fill your soul.

The Gospel at Colonus runs 90 minutes with no intermission at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., in Hyde Park. Shows play through June 11. Tickets are $40-$82 with discounts available for students, groups, and veterans. For more information, please visit www.CourtTheatre.org.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.