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Oedipus, Church, and Catharsis

A man in a white suit stands against a gray background. He is bathed in warm light, and is raising his eyes and his left hand up to the ceiling. He looks inquisitive.
Kelvin Roston Jr. by Joe Mazza.

To Sophocles and most ancient Greeks, “the gods” and divinity represent total and unrelenting orthodoxy. 

Yet, to the dramatist, divinity represents the natural forces of the universe to which mortals are wittingly or unwillingly subject. It is only once people experience trial and crisis – tragedy and catharsis – that they can understand this notion of divinity and a universal order. In so doing, people have the opportunity to become more genuinely human and more genuinely themselves.

This is the foundational concept behind The Gospel at Colonus. Outlined below are a series of quotes that bring this concept to life, along with some information about the Reverend Earl Miller, a key religious figure in The Gospel at Colonus‘s history.

Redemption and Catharsis

“[Oedipus is changed by] a rite that lets him do the most simple yet most difficult of acts: tell his story…The Gospel at Colonus tells a tale of African American life in America. The consequences in the rite done and the story told mark the differences between the settings and ultimate meanings of these plays: one Greek and tragic, and the other, finally, Christian and transformed by joy.

– “Oedipus at Colonus and The Gospel at Colonus: African American Experience and the Classical Text,” LeBlanc, J.R., Medine, C.M.J. (2012). 

“I was wandering around a Greek theatre in Anatolia when I was younger, and I asked someone, ‘What’s this stone?’ And the person said, ‘It’s the altar.’ And I suddenly realized that it’s a church…It suddenly dawned on me that tragedy is the church, and that it is the connection to a church that is cathartic.”

“Empathy – when you emotionally identify, when you are moved, yours is the way of catharsis. We have a decorous image of empathy, the ‘crying at the sad parts and smiling at the glad part,’ but there are more potent forms of empathy.”

– Lee Breuer, Getting Off: Lee Breuer on Performance

Reverend Earl Miller

Morgan Freeman and I listened to Pentecostal preaching all over Minneapolis, and the guy who eventually played Theseus was a preacher…Reverend Earl Miller. He was the guy that Morgan studied in order to learn how to preach.”

– Lee Breuer

Reverend Earl Miller is the senior pastor of the 1,500-member Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota’s oldest and largest Black congregation. He holds a doctor of ministry degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

A man in brown velvet pastor's robes looks concerned. He is pointing to something in the distance.
Reverend Earl Miller as Theseus in a 2018 production of The Gospel at Colonus. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis staged The Gospel at Colonus as part of their 1986/87 season, in which Reverend Earl Miller performed as Theseus, king of Athens. During the run, Miller performed eight times a week while maintaining his full pastoral load; his preaching offered a model for the style, rhythm, and vocal inflections of the show, and he transformed the production into an avenue for ministry. Two nights a week, he led an introductory Bible study for members of the cast. 

Below is a collection of quotes from Miller, specifically, in which he draw parallels between The Gospel at Colonus, Black worship, and redemption; Miller’s comments are a helpful lens through which to understand both the structure and style of Gospel.

“The central message [of Gospel] is one of redemption and liberation, and that is a Christian message. And it is what the Black church has been about. The message of the preacher in a traditional Black sermon has always ended in celebration, hope, and freedom in Jesus. The way the play ends is the way our worship ends.”

“The Old Testament talks about the casting of lots, which determined a person’s destiny. Oedipus’s lot was already cast; he had no choice. As slaves, Black people in this country were oppressed…like Oedipus, our lots were cast. But the play tells us that, whatever your lot, there is ultimately redemption.”

“From the very beginning, Black preaching was different from white preaching. It broke all the rules of form and organization. One of the main characteristics of Black preaching is storytelling...Black preaching is body and soul. Black preaching, like Black religion, is holistic. It engages the whole person.”

“What implications does this have for drama? Well, in reality, what I do every Sunday is drama, but I am performing for the Lord.”

The Gospel at Colonus runs from May 12th – June 11th and tickets are available now! Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at (773) 753-4471.

Posted on May 5, 2023 in Productions

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