When the coronavirus shut down Chicago theaters, Court Theatre canceled its production of Henrik Ibsen's “The Lady from the Sea,” which was supposed to begin previews on March 12.
But a more vexing problem for the theater was what to do about “The Gospel at Colonus” scheduled to open in May as the finale to the season celebrating Charles Newell's 25th anniversary as Court's artistic director.
“ 'Gospel' is the second part of our Oedipus trilogy, which started with 'Oedipus Rex' in 2019 and ends with 'Antigone' in early 2021, so we couldn't cancel it,” Newell explained. “It also has been my dream project since I saw the original production.”
Created by experimental theater director Lee Breuer, who wrote the book and lyrics, and composer Bob Telson, “The Gospel at Colonus” is an African American version of Sophocles' “Oedipus at Colonus,” presented as a Pentecostal church service with real gospel performers. It premiered in 1983 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. “I was completely blown away by it,” Newell recalls. “I saw it three more times.”
“Gospel” came to the Arena Stage in Newell's hometown, Washington D.C., the following year, and he applied to be a directing intern. “I just wanted to be in the same room as Morgan Freeman (who played the Messenger) and the others, and it really made a mark on me,” he says. The Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre in 1990 featured a cast of 60 including Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama from the original, several local gospel groups, and Pop Staples, who was 75 at the time.
Court Theatre has decided to move “The Gospel at Colonus” to the second slot in the 2020-2021 season. It is scheduled to run in November-December right before Sophocles' “Antigone” in January-February. Rehearsals will start in October, but the production was cast for this spring's opening, and Newell is hoping all the actors will be available in the fall. The leads are the same as for the rest of the trilogy, including Kelvin Roston Jr. as Oedipus, Aeriel Williams as Antigone, and Timothy Edward Kane as Creon.
While the ensemble won't be anywhere near 60 people, Newell says that this will be the largest production in Court's history with 17 performers and 5 musicians on stage. “Some of the actors will be familiar, but we're also turning to the gospel community,” he said. “I regularly visit South Side churches on Sundays and have gotten to know some of the artists. This will be our first chance to really connect with them.” He added that he and executive director Angel Ysaguirre have planned lots of community engagement but that everything is in the process of being rescheduled.
Newell's design for the show is in the development stages, but he promised that it's going to be very intimate compared to original, though they're using Breuer and Telson's text and score. The music direction and orchestrations/arrangements are by Mark J.B. Hood.
“The setting is a sacred grove at Colonus near Athens, and I want to make it feel 'time full',” he says, noting that he hates the word “timeless.” “Like our 'Oedipus Rex,' it will draw from many periods.”
“The Gospel at Colonus” replaces Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's “Violet” in Court's 2020-2021 lineup, but Newell would like to stage that musical in a future season. Although he's “heartbroken” about having to cancel it and “The Lady from the Sea,” which he'd also like to reschedule, he feels that the decision was the best overall for everyone.
As it now stands, Court's 2020-2021 season opens with August Wilson's “Two Trains Running,” directed by Ron OJ Parson in September-October. This is the pentultimate play in Court's ongoing commitment to staging all of Wilson's American Century Cycle. Following “The Gospel at Colonus” and “Antigone,” which is directed by Seret Scott, is Caryl Churchill's haunting “Fen” directed by Vanessa Stalling in March-April.
The closer, in May-June, should be a stunner. Newell directs Shakespeare's “Othello” starring Kelvin Roston Jr. as the fatally jealous title Moor and Timothy Edward Kane as his nemesis Iago. I can hardly wait.
Four- and five-play subscriptions range from $96 to $300. Call the box office at 773-753-4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.