Gospel in Millennia
When Charlie Newell and I first met to discuss the dramaturgy for The Gospel at Colonus, he recounted the soul-stirring experience of seeing its premiere production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983; this same story is shared in his Artistic Director’s note. I could hear a swell in his voice as his memory lifted his words and then folded softly back, settling into the present. His tale was not unlike Sophocles’s verse—“smooth, pure, and felicitous,” as observed by Classics scholar Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone are the textual foundation of Lee Breuer’s adaptation.
Charlie confided in me that his decades-long artistic journey is anchored to that original performance of Gospel. It made me wonder: if our ancient sources are true, according to which the fifteen-year-old Sophocles led the celebration of Athenian victory in the Battle of Salamis—a turning point in the Persian Wars—did he experience a similar emotional swell? Did that feeling propel him to compose 123 plays over the next seventy years, until the last work at the end of his life, Oedipus at Colonus?
Sophocles lived through the Golden Age of Athens. Following the Greek city-states’ victory in the Persian Wars, Athens established itself as Greece’s intellectual and artistic center while demanding loyalty from its allies. Athens remained a despotic presence in the region until it was defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, which Sophocles witnessed almost to its end. He passed away at ninety in 406 BCE, before his beloved city starved into surrender in 404 BCE. In the Peloponnesian War, Sparta had spared Athens from destruction after the war, and although time eventually ground the city into dust, some relics of Sophocles’s Athens remained in their sculptural forms.
It could have been such a relic, such a stone, that Lee Breuer stumbled on while wandering around the archaeological site of a Greek theatre. Breuer wrote in 1999 that The Gospel at Colonus took shape in this moment, when it dawned on him that this stone was a church, that “tragedy is the church, and that it is the connection to a church that is cathartic.” As per Breuer’s instruction, to remember the ancient and the mythical, we have to feel—“when you emotionally identify, when you are moved, yours is the way of catharsis.”
The original production of The Gospel at Colonus brought its audience to this swelling emotion in the setting of a Black Pentecostal church. It was an ecstatic spiritual experience in which a gospel choir assumed the role of the ancient Greek chorus, mediating the audience’s reaction to Sophocles’s Oedipus myth. It proved that American expression is intrinsically tied to the Black American experience, symbolized by the Pentecostal church. However, Breuer’s grand vision was not without its problems: complicit in cultural imperialism and oblivious to histories of racial violence in the United States, Breuer’s Gospel also neglected gospel music’s subversion of American racial politics from slavery to Jim Crow. This insurgent spirit is central to our production in Chicago in 2023.
During the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970, Chicago was the “promised land” for millions of African Americans in the South. Like Oedipus, they embarked on a journey to “live where they can,” bringing jazz, blues, and spirituals to Chicago. Their vibrant social and cultural lives invigorated the city and created a Black Metropolis. Moreover, since the 1930s, Black Chicagoans have sung the truth of the Bible with gospel music. It is a message of redemption and liberation, in total submission to God. Looking back to the Peloponnesian War, perhaps the Athenian chorus sung with the same embodied, participatory ecstasy in the face of their militant Spartan conquerors?
In the preface to his translation of Oedipus at Colonus, Nicholas Rudall, founding Artistic Director of Court Theatre, summarized it as a “supplicant” play that unfolds around Oedipus’s plea to the gods and the people of Colonus, who grant him sanctuary. Likewise, Chicago’s founding story offers us more ancestral resonance. Let’s imagine the Grove of the Furies, a sacred place outside of Colonus, morphing into Lake Michigan, which had, for millennia, been sacred to Indigenous people of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations, and many other tribes like the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox. In 1778, Kitihawa, a Potawatomi woman, married Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, and convinced her people to accept him as Potawatomi kin. DuSable, of French and African descent, became the first non-Native permanent settler on the land. For the next two centuries, countless nonNative settlers would tread the land, build railroads, open factories, erect skyscrapers, and displace the Midwest’s largest Indigenous population.
Chicago has flourished on the backs of its Black and Indigenous roots into a modern city rich in spirits, miracles, and laments. It grows while it sheds. It gives while it receives. It is a sacred ground for us and all who once came, lived, and rested here, just as Athens was for Sophocles, his Oedipus, and the people of Colonus. And just as Sophocles wrote about the myths of Oedipus in the Bronze Age, two thousand years before his own time, we always have more history and stories to reflect on, especially those that appeal to our spirituality and connect our mortal lives to the divine. It is never too early or too late to look back.
Oedipus’s final hour at Colonus is only part of Sophocles’s trilogy. Court Theatre staged the first installment, Oedipus Rex, in 2019, and Antigone, the final play in the trilogy, will be staged next season. With the shifting scenes, Lake Michigan might appear as Mount Cithaeron, where baby Oedipus was abandoned in Oedipus Rex, or as the cave where Antigone ended her life in Antigone. Regardless, Chicago is the city where our lives take place and the lens through which we find resonance with ages past and lands far away.