The idea of Lee Breuer, a high priest of the experimental vanguard and dedicated counter-culturist, even thinking about Broadway is, at first, astounding, and possibly preposterous. It's as though John Cage wanted to write a hit single, or Allen Ginsberg a situation comedy. This man has spent his 20-year career in Lower East Side lofts and borrowed basements, not in theaters with custom-painted dressing rooms and a $45 top.
The production that has put him within conceptual distance of Broadway is "The Gospel at Colonus," which opens this week at Arena Stage. It is Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus," set in a black pentecostal church, cast with Gospel groups like Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers. It is, Breuer says, a synthesis -- not only of Greek tragedy and the black American church, with a Japanese-influenced visual style, but the key to unlock the classics for a contemporary audience.
"Our conception of classical theater in America is Anglophile, horrendously Anglophile," he said in a recent post-rehearsal interview. "In point of fact we're still virtually an esthetic colony of England." American actors feel compelled to perform the classics in lofty "Shakespearean" tones, he said, and generally the interpretations are so intellectualized that the original religious essence of Greek tragedies is completely lost.
"What I have never really seen before this is a complete cathartic experience in terms of a Greek play," he said. "And in my opinion the black American church experience is one of the only ones where you can experience catharsis."
"I'm kind of evangelical about this," he says. Breuer is now preaching the gospel of Gospel as an American mode that is both popular and morally honest. Forget the "dumb kings" of England, he says, and embrace the African heritage of story and song to dramatize the classic stories of life and death. "Is the people's voice of America still basically Anglican? No! There's too much Third World in America, too much black, too much Oriental. The Anglican tradition is not the voice of America anymore, nor is it the voice of South America. This may point a finger toward a new tradition."
"The Gospel at Colonus" actually began because of composer Bob Telson's association with Sam Butler, guitarist for the Five Blind Boys. Telson, who collaborated with Breuer on a doo-wop opera called "Sister Suzie Cinema" a few years ago, introduced Breuer to the music, and the two went to Pentecostal churches and Gospel music concerts as the idea gestated.
The Arena's production is the latest in a process that has gone on for almost four years: a workshop in Minneapolis, a European tour, an outdoor production at the Houston Opera, and last fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, where it was a smash hit. It went from having a lead actor and the doo-wop group from "Sister Suzie," 14 Karat Soul, to having four well-known Gospel groups and a cast of black actors including Morgan Freeman, Robert Earl Jones and Carl Lumbly. With a cast of 57, including the 35-member Wesley Boyd's Gospel Music Workshop Choir of Washington, it is one of the more ambitious productions mounted at Arena.
Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys are the "musical manifestation" of Oedipus, the king who put out his eyes after discovering that he had killed his father and married his mother. Freeman plays a Pentecostal preacher, who preaches to his congregation the story of "Oedipus at Colonus," which deals with his quest for peace and redemption in his final years. The preacher corresponds to the role of the messenger in the original, and, along with other members of the congregation, takes a part in acting out the story, which is told in words and music. The text and the song lyrics are based on the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Sophocles, and include excerpts from "Antigone" and "Oedipus Rex."
Breuer says the parallels between a pentecostal church service and a Greek tragedy are simple (although his somewhat baroque speaking style is anything but). "The messenger speaks to explain the play in moral terms, and the story is to be the example. The preacher equals the messenger, the choir equals the chorus, the secondary speakers are the church deacons or elders. The choral response relationship is similar, and the structure . . . Greek drama was a service. Experts say the atmosphere at a performance was akin to a rock concert, with people freaking out, calling out, and hiding in terror when Apollo appeared." In a pentecostal service, he says, the congregation is actively responsive, and the catharthis often takes the form of fainting, speaking in tongues or other personal epiphanies.
At first the idea that Telson, a white man from Brooklyn educated by Nadia Boulanger and Harvard, could write black Gospel music, which traces its roots to spirituals and before that to African songs and rituals, seems a trick at best and an embarrassment at worst. But the 35-year-old Telson has made "Third World music" something of a specialty, and has played with soul, salsa and Afro-Cuban bands as well as with the esoteric Philip Glass.
"I was interested to see how well he carried it off," says Pearl Williams Jones, associate professor of Gospel music at the University of the District of Columbia, who saw the show in Brooklyn. "Bob is an extremely sensitive composer, and it is authentic."
Helped, both Breuer and Jones note, by the presence of authentic Gospel singers. "I think Bob could write an Italian opera, and if Pavarotti sang it, it would sound like Italian opera," Breuer says.
"He wrote the tunes but he couldn't put on the finesse," says Clarence Fountain, who has been singing for 30 years. Fountain, who lives in Northeast Washington when he's not on tour, said he and the other Gospel singers helped restructure the show as well. "We took the Greek part out and put the church part in," he says. "You get more feeling and jubilation."
The result has brought Breuer more popular exposure than any of his works so far, including a controversial production of "Lulu" he did for the American Repertory Theatre in Boston in 1980, which may have horrified as many people as it entranced. For 20-odd years he has been a member of the Mabou Mines, a unique experimental "theater collaborative" that has defied categorization. Existing on a combination of $200-a-week salaries and unemployment, the group operates out of a one-time elementary school on New York's Lower East Side and produces about three shows a year, recently under the auspices of Joseph Papp.
Breuer and the other core members also work outside the group; "The Gospel at Colonus" is one of those outside projects. "Hajj," a video-theater tone poem by Breuer, performed by Ruth Maleczech, was seen here at the video festival two years ago, and Joanne Akalaitis' production of Philip Glass' "The Photographer" was here as part of a tour last year.
Like most of the group, Breuer has talents as a writer, producer and director, and in many ways this production is a culmination of his work. "I found a way through this to be both counter-culture and culture at the same time," he says.
"I've been part of the experimental tradition for a long time, but I've always been more of a populist than an elitist. But my whole predilection for a theater perceived in irony or negativism, for Brecht, Beckett, for basically alienated theater, was . . . kind of hiding the fact that my real feelings were in a positivistic vein. I wanted to have great joy and high music on the stage and not irony and black comedy."
Along with this investigation of popular forms, Breuer is now facing the possibility of popular success. The show has been recorded by Warner Brothers and produced by members of the Steely Dan group -- to good reviews. A Broadway production is "75 percent" a reality. Breuer admits, somewhat sheepishly, that this possibility is inviting. He's discovering the delights of popularity.
"This is what I feel. I am $100,000 in debt. What combination of people could be stupid enough to loan me that much money, I don't know. Most of it was investing in shows that I believed in that lost money. If this show went to Broadway unchanged, no stars, and people liked it, and were willing to pay $25 or $30 a seat, I would feel fine."
Oh, by the way -- he's made sure that the show would open in time to be eligible for Tony nominations.
"If a thousand people will listen to me instead of 10, I'm overjoyed . . . This is credibility from the white world for a specific and not tremendously well-known aspect of the black world. It's an intricate level of credibility for a very strange fish."