Charisma and Catharsis

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Mark Frohna

The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer’s gospel opera, is currently playing in a wondrous production by Skylight Music Theater. It’s a complicated show: unfolding what it’s all about takes some explaining and a bit of theater history. But ultimately, like any opera, it’s all about the feelings.

In Aristotle’s classic work The Poetics, that great explainer of everything set out six components of tragedy, using Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as his exemplar. Among these six is “song and dance.” Now, nobody really knows how song and dance figured into the performance of Greek tragedies. We do know that they were highly stylized, chanted and sung, and were powerfully moving. Some even say that opera was inspired by Aristotle’s account of Greek tragedy (which would explain why everyone in opera is so sad). Lee Breuer was among the prominent American experimental directors of the 80s; his postmodernism rejected Aristotle’s categories of plot, character, and climactic action to focus on playfulness, mixing genres, spectacle, and the immediacy of performance. So Breuer chose to highlight the ritual and performance aspects of Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, by staging it as a Gospel service. And as we can see, Gospel music is, like opera, a sophisticated art form, full of codes and conventions, encompassing a vast variety of modes and styles. But quite unlike opera, which was produced by the efflux of aristocracy, Gospel was born from the collective genius of a downtrodden people.

Sophocles’ play is not conventionally dramatic: having put out his eyes and in exile from his native city, Oedipus is a ruined old blind man looking for the place that was prophesied for him to find his final rest. He finds it, some of his family drops in, and—he dies, albeit in a mysterious and god-touched manner. That’s the plot. (An excellent, more detailed synopsis of the action, written by theater critic Mike Fischer, is in an audience guide available in the lobby; it’s a very helpful guide.)

Now for the feelings: Aristotle’s most famous idea about theater was catharsis: the emotional cleansing brought about by the vicarious pity and fear felt by the audience of the tragedy. This was always rather an abstract concept for me— until I was lucky enough to see Breuer’s 1987 production of Gospel at the Guthrie Theater, with Morgan Freeman as the Preacher, all Five Blind Boys of Alabama as Oedipus, and a choir of 30 high-powered singers, dressed to the nines. They had been performing the show for several years, both on and off Broadway, and they knew exactly how to shake an audience like a puppy tosses a stuffed toy. Suddenly, catharsis was no concept;  it was a sheer carnal event: a deep-tissue massage of the heart brought on by the emotional power of the singing; a transfer of feeling directly from the performers’ souls to the bodies of the audience, through the medium of rhythmically pulsing vibrations of air. This was the singular magic of live performance—a phenomenon we sometimes call charisma, from a Greek word for “gift.”

With a considerably smaller cast, this Skylight production is as down-to-earth as its aspirations toward salvation are lofty. It’s like a neighborhood church service rather than some mythic revival set in heaven. Under the stage direction of Sheri Williams Pannell and the music direction of Christie Chiles Twillie, the cast of gifted and richly experienced local performers bring their own personal and spiritual concerns to the story of a bygone age, translated into the language of a living ceremonial tradition. That the choir is one of the show’s greatest assets becomes clear towards the end, when two of them step up to give scorching solos. Another treasure is Byron Jones, who plays Oedipus. His stylized performance of blind frailty masks a voice of intense controlled power that anchors the entire show. Tasha McCoy and Raven Dockery bring dignity and integrity to their roles as Oedipus’ daughters (and sisters) while looking fabulous in costumes by Amy Horst.

Oedipus is one of the most complex characters in Western literature, with theorists from Freud onward weighing in with interpretations. Typically he models the paradox of Western Man: seeking to solve the world’s problems, he discovers that he is in fact the cause of them. He represents the curse of self-awareness, the animal passions that lurk beneath our rational exterior, and the shame and guilt associated with hubris, blinding pride. In The Gospel at Colonus, he appears Christlike, both in his suffering and in his capacity as a scapegoat, standing in for any one of us (for who among us is without sin?) As tenderly mourned by his family and allies, he could be any of our beloved elders, for whom the last blessing of life is release. He could be us in our final hours. But in the setting of a Black Pentecostal service, it’s irresistible to see a poignant tribute to those arguably among the last to be recognized in our culture: elder black men, buffeted their entire lives by historical forces beyond their control. It’s a fine and sacred thing to honor them.

Truly, though, you could also say that the ensemble is the protagonist of this show: they support one another with raised hands and exclamations of “Yes,” and “Amen.” They step in to voice characters; they generously co-create the stage-world of this ceremonial saga. Those who have not grown up in such a tradition might feel a little like voyeurs peeping through the church window on a very private communal ritual. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all felt free to call out “Amen,” or to raise a hand when we feel the spirit touching our heart?

Skylight Music Theater presents

The Gospel at Colonus
Conceived and adapted by Lee Bruer
Music composed by Bob Telson

playing through January 26

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