Great “Gospel”

The much lauded “Gospel At Colonus” is on tour this summer.

Posted by Therra Cathryn Gwyn 

 It may be one of the coldest places in the USA much of the year, but the temperature will soar this summer in Minnesota when “ The Gospel At Colonus” explodes into St. Paul’s Ordway Center the first week of August.  First produced in NYC in the early 1980s with a pre-Miss Daisy Morgan Freeman in the original cast, this durable  roof-raiser is a classic begat by a classic.  I could make this post short and sweet, telling you everything you need to know by simply writing, “Go. For God’s sake, go!”  but that might not suffice if you’re not familiar with the great “Gospel”.  Better to take a moment to give you a few of many reasons to spend your valuable time and entertainment dollars.  “Gospel At Colonus” is the Sophocles classic “Oedipus at Colonus” re-told in an African American church through the blues and rhythm of gospel music, to great rousing effect. This latest production, stopping in St. Paul for 6 days,  features the incomparable Blind Boys of Alabama, the aptly named Soul Stirrers and the glowing talent of one of  Georgia’s gems, powerhouse vocalist Bernardine Mitchell. I’ve worked with Bernardine several times and thanks to her talent, it wasn’t work.  I always felt lucky to be within listening distance when she was performing. Atlanta has long had a love affair with this divine diva. Go see “Gospel” and fall in love too.

“ The Gospel At Colonus”  was conceived,  adapted and directed by writer/director, Lee Breuer. Breuer is an integral member of the ever-fine Mabou Mines, probably one of the most creative companies I’ve ever come across and certainly the most wildly inventive group of artists I’ve had the chance to work with. I was lucky enough to be  PR and Marketing Director at Theatrical Outfit when then interim Artistic Director Sharon Levy brought them to Atlanta to serve up “Shaggy Dog Animation” for both a small and appreciative and larger not-quite-ready-for-the-avant-garde-stuff-y’all, Deep South, public. It was one of the last stage plays RuPaul did before becoming a household name. In true fact, he might not have become a star in way he did without “Shaggy  Dog”, for it was during that happily creative cacophony that Sharon put Ru and the future songwriter and producer of “Supermodel of the World” ( Jimmy Harry) in the same room. They didn’t know each other previous, Ru having already gone to NYC and Jimmy having not yet left Minneapolis. Sharon brought them, all of us at The Outfit and a whole cast of true characters together for a memorable, wonderful time. “Shaggy Dog Animation” deserves its own separate post chronicling  the madness, magic and music that was the process and production. Stay tuned.

Sharon soon left us behind and by no small coincidence  is also the producer of this current tour. She now heads her own  New York City-based production company, Dovetail, and continues to spread the gospel (no pun intended) of creativity and the promise of new works across the globe. She is  the woman I directly credit for a mantra I hold dear today and that is “Say yes to art”. Don’t worry if  your “yes” makes no sense in a logical world, say yes anyway and see where the spark takes you.  I can’t count how many times an artist would come to Sharon during the formative stages of a production and propose something that many theatre heads would have nixed, either for financial, time, or artistic constraints – or, as sometimes happens, reasons connected to ego. What mattered to Sharon was always the art – where it could go, what it could do, who it could touch.  She almost always said yes. She was many an artist’s best friend in this way.  Those were the early days of my career and I’m not sure I knew what a visionary she was then. I’m glad I know now. Thanks for the mantra, Sharon.

 Okay…so back to the beauty of “Gospel At Colonus”. The music that will have you on your feet is composed, arranged and directed by the wholly talented Bob Telson, probably best known for his Academy Award nominated score for “Bagdad Café“. He’s a multiple award  nominee (Grammy, Tony) and his musical landscape is vast, including classical, gospel, rock and roll, theatre and being band mates with artists as varied as Phillip Glass and Tito Puente. Telson’s gift for lifting music and audiences up is well showcased here. Step back non-believers, reviewers often gush about this musical, using words like “dazzling”, “special”, “brilliant”. Writer and critic Stephen Fried once wrote in Philadelphia magazine about how a friend entreated him to see ” The Gospel At Colonus”. “I can’t really explain what to you what it’s like,” his friend told him, “but if you don’t come up here and see it you are making a  terrible, terrible mistake.”  That was 1985. It still holds true today.

Don’t make a mistake.  See “Gospel” at the Ordway August 5- 11th or at the Edinburgh International Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, August 21-23.