Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Gospel at Colonus
The story transports that last-written of Sophocles' Theban plays, Oedipus at Colonus, to an African American Pentecostal Church, where a pair of evangelists draw on the story of the end of the title character's life for the central lesson of their service. Although the text borrows chapter and verse from Sophocles, the retelling is fluid and impressionistic, with the evangelists and the characters often presaging and echoing one another's lines. On paper, this might seem calculated to render an already tangled ancient family drama completely inscrutable to a contemporary audience. Quite the opposite, though, through music, movement, and electric connection, this tells the audience everything timeless and worth knowing about the story.
John Culbert's scenic design carves the stage into a series of sinuous curves that offer some change in elevation. The "steps" this creates are appropriately treacherous, presenting an obstacle not just to blind Oedipus, but anyone who would try to move swiftly or without the support and guidance of the community. If this suggests the natural environment and the ancient world, the upstage elements speak to a constructed house of worship. A series of slim, blonde wooden slats rise from the floor past a catwalk that curves across the entire width of the stage. Upstage left, a spiral staircase affords access to a balcony where the band is housed.
The deceptively simple design manages to convey a devout congregation, but also one that has found some worldly comfort and ease. This image is underscored by Keith Parham's lighting design that works in both subtle shifts and frenetic bursts, as well as by the effortlessly slick sound design by Sarah Ramos.
Raquel Adorno's costumes contribute greatly to the show's dream-like beauty. Most of the cast is dressed in off-white accented with muted gold and sand tones. The lines and "flavor" for each member of the cast are distinctive and specific to that individual, and yet they are pointedly a collective body, a theme Adorno emphasizes with the scarves and handkerchiefs the actors incorporate into their individual and collaborative numbers.
There are three exceptions to the color palette: Creon the lone white actor is arrayed in a bright, artificial white that manages to clash painfully and purposefully with every other garment and hue on stage. Polyneices, when he arrives, is clad in black with flashy gold embroidery on his tunic. And Oedipus himself is draped in flowing garments that have hints of silver and blue, foreshadowing his death and release from his torment.
For a show that is moving, uplifting and devastating, it's somehow hard to talk about individual performances, as this depends so deeply on the way the entire cast feeds and sparks off one another.
Nonetheless, as Theseus, Mark Spates Smith is an exquisite singer and an earth-shaking presence, as is Jessica Brooke Seals as the Evangelist. Juwon Tyrel Perry's nearly a cappella performance of "Fair Colonus" is devastatingly beautiful.
Aeriel Williams conveys the whole burden of Antigone's story in every one of her movements and every line she sings, and Ariana Burks' Ismene is the perfect, sunny foil to her. Kai A. Ealy is so charismatic that one wants to believe Polyneices is sincere and selfless in seeking his father's blessing.
Most importantly, as Oedipus, Kevin Roston Jr. commands the attention of the entire room. The tight, skillful direction of the large cast has all eyes on him at every moment, and the individual reactions to him and the revelations about his history are nuanced and varied. But it is Roston's presence and power that makes every response believable.
Although he's not visible on stage and all the musicians are glorious, Mahmoud Khan deserves special mention, not just for serving as the conductor, but also for filling the space to the rafters with the sound of that Hammond organ.
The Gospel at Colonus runs through June 11, 2023, at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.CourtTheatre.org or call 773-753-4472.