Reviving a Gospel Musical with Ancient Roots | Chicago News

When gospel music merges with an ancient Greek text, you could almost call it a holy communion. “The Gospel at Colonus” is a revival in more ways than one, and it brings ecstatic church music into the theater.

“Chicago Tonight” visited a final rehearsal.

“I think we all got spirit in us, no matter who you pray to, no matter what you believe, no matter what you clap for, there’s a spirit in all of us,” co-director Mark J.P. Hood said. “Coming to this show is a spiritual event. It’s not Christian, it’s not Jewish, it’s not Muslim, it’s not Greek. Well, it’s a little Greek because that’s what it’s about, but it’s a spiritual event.”

Morgan Freeman was in the original cast in 1983, and that production inspired the career of at least one member of the audience.

“I saw the original production in 1983 at Brooklyn Academy of Music and as a result decided, hey, if classic texts and music can create such a spiritual event that lifts the entire community in that theater to a cathartic experience like one imagines in Greek theater, and yet it’s contemporary for today, and it’s all of us doing that together, that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” said Charles Newell, Court Theatre’s artistic director. “And so it feels like I’ve been preparing this for 40 years even though we only got two more days to go before we open.”

“The Gospel at Colonus” is based on “Oedipus at Colonus,” Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play about an aging king who seeks redemption after a life of sin.

One of the cast members, Shari Addison, performed in the original world tour. The role she originated is now played by her daughter, Jessica Seals. The directors have high praise for the all-Chicago cast.

“We have one of the most talented casts I’ve ever worked with,” Hood said. “You know as an actor, I come up here in Chicago, I come up in the community here, I’ve been doing theater with many of these people and somehow we got an embarrassment of riches. I mean, we have the talent, and a big goal of ours was that everybody be showcased in some way — even if it’s just a line here or there — that everyone’s voice be showcased.”

The directors are both sons of preachers. Following rehearsal, they gave final notes to the cast in advance of opening night.

“Taking Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and putting it in the context of spirituality expressed through Black Pentecostal worship and spirit — it’s a combination of the two that creates this third thing,” Newell said.

“Some people could be intimidated by thinking they’re going to see a classic Greek play because they’re like, ‘I don’t understand it,’ or some people could be turned off by thinking, ‘Aw, it’s gonna be a gospel church service,’” Hood said. “I’m here to tell you it’s not one or the other, it’s truly its own entity. It’s a spiritual thing.”

“The Gospel at Colonus” just opened at Court Theatre in Hyde Park. The play runs through June 11.

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