The Gospel at Colonus

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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Greek playwright Sophocles wrote “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” – the three-part myth about a Theban king who killed his father and married his mother. Today, shrinks like to toss around the term “Oedipus Complex.”

“The Gospel of Colonus” is a modern-day musical version of the Sophocles’ middle play with an all-black cast. Created in 1983 by experimental theater director Lee Breuer and musical genius Bob Telson, PBS filmed it a few years later as part of its Great Performances TV series.

In this gospel-infused spin on the Greek tragedy, the story is set in a Pentecostal church.

Directed for PBS by Kirk Browning, this retelling stars Morgan Freeman, Robert Earl Jones (father of James Earl Jones), and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The Blind Boys of Alabama collectively play Oedipus. (Remember, he ripped out his eyes after he found he’d unknowingly sired four children with his own mother.)

Daughter Ismene (played by Jevetta Steele) recounts the civil war between Oedipus’s sons. His other daughter Antigone (Isabelle O’Connor) acts as his eyes to the world. His brother-in-law Creon (Robert Earl Jones) and friend Theseus (Carl Lumbly) visit the old man in his spartan surroundings. And the Messenger (Morgan Freeman) links it all together.

We’re asked to decide whether Oedipus is a pariah or paragon. How he’s seen by others is at the core of this story.

Ultimately, this is a play of hope and redemption.

Showing on Monday night, the film launches Black History Month at Tropic Cinema. Curated by Tropic alumna Lori Reid, it is the first of four celebratory films – “Tell Them We Are Rising,” Killer of Sheep,” and “Through a Lens Darkly.”

This retelling of a classic Greek myth as an African American gospel reminds me of Orson Welles’ modern-dress version of Julius Caesar or his so-called voodoo “MacBeth” or his updating of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”

But “The Gospel of Colonus” stands on its own, shining a joyous light on the black religious experience with some mighty fine singing and dancing that will make you say “Amen.”

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