The play "Gospel at Colonus" has been in Texas, Minnesota and New York. But it wasn't until the cast came to Washington that it faced the challenge of a mostly white, conservative audience. Theatergoers in other cities virtually have joined in the act. The audience here, however, has been a restrained group that sits and ponders, occasionally clapping to the sounds of gospel songs.
But that's okay. The play still affects the spirit in a manner that gives credence to the meaning of the word "gospel": good news.
"I'm from Lynchburg, Va., grew up in a segregated environment, but I know this music from somewhere," said Richard Bryant, who is white. "It's in me," he said, touching his chest. Said another white theatergoer, "This music makes me feel like my skin is going to change colors."
Don't laugh. And please, don't let that scare you away. What we have here is a spiritual happening, a bold and daring theatrical production in a city accustomed to events like President Reagan joining black students on the Ellipse to light a Christmas tree.
At the Arena Stage in Southwest Washington, there has been a fusion of African-style music and the European classic, "Oedipus at Colonus," a Greek tragedy transformed into a cathartic ode to man's fate, his suffering and his redemption.
When the lights go dim, few in the audience know what to expect. The Arena Stage clientele, some of whom are able to donate $10,000 to keep the place alive, probably never have been inside a black community, let alone the nitty-gritty of black Pentecostalism where people shout and testify in a rhythm of guitars, drums and trombones.
The stage is set up with a preacher playing the part of the narrator, J. J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers as the deacon board, the J. D. Steele Singers as Oedipus' daughters, Robert Earl Jones (father of actor James Earl Jones) as the evil Creon, and Washington's own Wesley Boyd's Workshop Choir as the congregation.
Suddenly, the deacon board rises in song, "Stop, Do Not Go On," and singer Sam Butler uses his electric bass guitar as a living sword to fend off the oncoming Oedipus(es).
By the time Jevetta Steele finishes her woeful refrain: "How Can I See You Through My Tears," the ice has been broken. From the audience, an elderly white man rises to his feet in a singular standing ovation. "Amen," he says. Something was getting through.
From the beginning, there have been lingering suspicions about this play, ranging from the sheer audacity of director Lee Breuer to fuse gospel with the works of Sophocles, to the age-old concern that whites were stealing yet another black art form for fun and profit.
But suspicion dies quickly on stage, and with all the tickets that have been sold for this production comes the notion that maybe there is a real interest here in understanding those things black and white and how they can fit together. In a superbly creative way, the play has used the suffering of a tragic Greek figure to lure an audience into the depths of a unique black experience.
That experience has not been compromised. As Village Voice reviewer Michael Feingold said, "Many stage productions over the years have used black performers as agents or vicars for extremes of experience white people thought themselves too refined to go through. Many, from 'The Green Pastures' to 'Amen Corner,' have displayed the black American adaptation of European Christianity as quaint diversion for affluent and irreligious white audiences, a sort of metaphysical dialect comedy. Lee Breuer splits the difference, turning the separateness back into a fusion."
Thus, "Gospel" becomes a fabulous experiment that works to integrate separate parts into a stronger whole, bringing this community closer together and adding to the good news that where there's a will, there is a way.