OEDIPUS:A GOSPEL MYTH
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: February 1-23, 2019; 7:30 PM evenings and 4:00 PM Sunday matinees; Acts of Faith Talkbacks on February 10 & 17
Ticket Prices: $15 – $35
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
Pride. Fate. Abuse of power. Patricide. Incest. Here’s a good one: hamartia (the fatal flaw that leads to the downfall of the tragic hero). Make no mistake about it; Oedipus: A Gospel Myth is a classic Greek tragedy with all the elements and accoutrements. It’s just set in a black church in the south in the 1920s.
Instead of a Greek chorus, there’s a soulful gospel trio (Shantell Dunnaville, Shalimar Hickman Fields, and Shalandis Wheeler Smith – whose names all just happen to start with the same letter). Instead of choir robes, they wore a version of a simple Greek tunic or chiton over bedazzled golden shirts. In addition to traditional music, including a beautiful rendition of the new-to-me “Rusty Old Halo,” sung by Fields, the trio provided ongoing silent reactions to the tragedy. One could just imagine them gossiping about what they had seen and heard after the service. Michael Jones accompanied them on piano, behind their pew that occupies the left side of the stage and provided the soundscape as well. Billy Dye was the music consultant – his first time working on a Firehouse Theatre production – and he and Gonzalez drew maximum creative power from these three singers and single musician.
For those not familiar with the story of Oedipus (maybe you slept through it in high school), it might help to review a brief synopsis prior to seeing the show. Even with the change of setting and an all-black cast, the integrity of the story remains. Oedipus, our tragic hero, was born to the king and queen of Thebes, but a prophecy warned that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart the prophecy, infant Oedipus was bound and left on a mountain to die. Of course, he didn’t die there, or there would be no story. And, of course, one can see parallels with biblical characters and stories.
This version of Oedipus: A Gospel Myth may be the brainchild of director/set designer Vinnie Gonzalez and his stellar cast, including dl Hopkins as Oedipus, Jeremy V. Morris as the Preacher, Toney Q. Cobb as Teiresias/the Messenger, and Patricia Alli as Jocasta, but the author is still listed as Sophocles. If you have a hard time imagining a black southern congregation relating to the language and mythology of ancient Greece, just remember that they have already been steeped in the language and parables of the King James Bible.
It’s not entirely clear that the congregation, with input from the audience, is performing Sophocles’ play in a dramatic sermon that juxtaposes the flawed nature of humankind with mankind’s role in destiny, that attempts to reconcile the contradictions between God’s grace and human suffering. At times it seems that there are two stories running parallel, with occasional intersection.
Morris begins his role early, greeting audience members in his preacher’s robe as we file into the theater. One might expect a collection plate to be passed. Morris presides from his pulpit, on the right. Centerstage is Oedipus’ throne, set on a raised platform with seven intimidating posts that made me think of The Emperor Jones. Hopkins is dressed in trousers and a double-breasted vest, and uses a cane which, along with his slight limp, are significant factors.
Both give intense performances, with extended sermons and soliloquies. R.O. Crews, as Jocasta’s brother, Kreon, gave a strong, more subtle performance. His role provided background information as well as took the edge off the otherwise unrelenting tragedy. There were few light moments, but in Act One there was a reference to “making Thebes great again.” Keaton Hillman was a silent servant throughout the first act but was charged with delivering the most devastating news of the entire drama in Act Two. This is quite graphic, but if you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to go see it for yourself.
The cast also includes J. Ron Fleming, Jr. as the Shepherd, Miles Hopkins as a Servant Boy, and Akilah Matthews and Rayden Tyler as Oedipus’ young daughters. Steven Koehler’s lighting is subtle, sometimes shining through the horizontal slats that make up the rear walls. Gonzalez has taken the floor boards and extended them part of the way the rear walls, which have intermittent patches of what could be broken bits of plaster.
Oedipus: A Gospel Myth has a running time of about 120 minutes, with one intermission, but the first act does seem to drag a bit, while the second act races along to the shocking revelations. Even with no prior knowledge of the story, or of the genre of Greek tragedy in general, my theater partner found this to be a moving and powerful drama that touched on very human issues.
And if any of this sounds vaguely familiar, there was an all-black musical, The Gospel at Colonus, that premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983. It was based on the second work in Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban tragedies (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) and the cast included gospel singers and church choirs.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos