The Death of Oedipus and The Departure of Charlie Newell: ‘The Gospel at Colonus’ Heralds The Court Theatre Into a New Age

Watching The Gospel at Colonus at The Getty Villa is like watching a live resurrection. A theatre piece becomes a fossil on closing day, an antiquity to be dusted off and given new life. Mark J.P. Hood and Charlie Newell have rolled their stone all the way from Chicago, IL to the mountains of Los Angeles, California. It’s a muscular act that requires the utmost attention, and like a resurrection, no one knows quite what to expect. The performers glide gently down the stone steps of the aisles, greeting us individually as the congregation gathers to testify to Theseus’ (Mark Spates Smith) tale of Oedipus. As an audience we feel a sense of comfort and home as we’re encouraged to talk back to the production. We’re a part of the story. 

Mark Spates Smith in the Gospel at Colonus at The Getty Villa

“We welcome you once, we welcome you twice, we welcome you three times, in the name of Jesus Christ!” – Mark Hood and the cast, welcoming Tatum, the new drummer.

The rehearsal room was led in a series of ring shouts and affirmations like these. Cast members would actually pause rehearsal to tell the entire company that they loved one person in the show so much they had to testify to it. The camaraderie and the culture of The Gospel at Colonus was why I traveled to observe the first few days of rehearsal at The Getty Villa. That, and the way that Mark J.P. Hood spoke on the Saturday night of closing weekend in Chicago. As Hood made comments on his and Newell’s collaboration he was effervescent – though I would later learn this is Hood’s general state of being. Hood spoke of how this was his first time being credited as a Music Director, and a Director, as the crowd audibly gasped – given what we had seen, how was that possible? 

Co-directing isn’t something you see often in the theatre. It can be difficult to imagine two egos sharing an artistic vision and management of the room. The best directing teams respect each other’s skills and space, but they also trust each other implicitly. Mark and Charlie’s collaboration is uniquely matched, with Mark’s musical prowess and Charlie’s love of classical compositions.

L-R, Hailey Brunson (Asst. Dir), Charlie Newell (Director) and Mark J.P. Hood (Director, Music Director) Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

Charlie Newell has been the Artistic Director of Court Theatre for almost thirty years, and on September 15th, 2023, announced that he intends to transition out of his role. After planning the 2024/2025 season with staff, he will transition into the role of Senior Artistic Consultant at Court and the University of Chicago. 

“I have put considerable thought into this transition and its timing. There is almost never an ideal moment for a change like this. However, as we build back from the pandemic, we find ourselves at a unique inflection point. We are emerging stronger and more resilient with the addition of talented new staff members, the establishment of a new Engagement division, and a closer relationship to Chicago’s South Side. It has been my life’s honor to lead Court Theatre to this point and I eagerly anticipate welcoming a new Artistic Director who will lead us into the future.” – Charlie Newell, 9.15.2023, Court Theatre’s Blog

Transition is a present theme: Newell has moved a show from the Court to the Getty Villa once before. In 2017, Court partnered with The Getty to present Nicholas Rudall’s translation of Iphigenia in Aulis. Newell’s history with The Gospel at Colonus hails back to the 1980s, and is also intertwined with Nicholas Rudall, the Founding Artistic Director of Court Theatre.

Nicholas Rudall and Charlie Newell, courtesy of the Tableau at UChicago.

In 2019, I was hired as the Inaugural Associate Producer at Court Theatre. Charlie was thinking about his legacy, and was fixed on staging The Gospel at Colonus. Though I knew that the creators of the original piece were white men, it seemed inappropriate for a white man to direct an all Black cast in a Gospel play. So I asked him about it. This story has since been told publicly, so I can tell it as I experienced it here. 

The Gospel at Colonus had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, directed by Lee Breuer and composed by Bob Telsen. Charlie was floored by this production, likely in the same way I was by Court’s, and immediately made plans to follow it to Arena Stage when it moved in 1984. Newell managed to wrangle a spot in the room as a directing intern, and a seed planted thirty years ago would start to grow. The Gospel at Colonus was Sophocles’ last play, written after Antigone and Oedipus Rex. It was an examination of the death of Oedipus, and Sophocles did not live to see it staged, his grandson staged it as a posthumous celebration. 

This wasn’t discussed between us, but I personally believe Newell became fascinated with this piece as an exploration of transition at this time in his life. Speaking from my own experience, resigning from Artistic Leadership felt like a tiny death, and I led a company for 6% of the time that Newell has led Court Theatre. 

Adding to this energy was Newell’s experience with Nicholas Rudall, the Founding Artistic Director of Court and Newell’s mentor, in his last days. Rudall was very ill towards the end of his life, and was in a coma when Newell went to say his farewells. When Newell arrived, Rudall woke up. Charlie Newell and Nicholas Rudall had a twelve hour conversation about how to stage the Oedipus cycle for new audiences. The next morning, Mr. Rudall had passed away. He transitioned from this world on June 19th, 2018, just shy of the Summer Solstice.

Charlie Newell is a man of deep feeling, and I could feel how much this show and this experience with Rudall had meant to him. He says of that day, “He gave me a final gift.” A reference to a book, Final Gifts by Maggie Callahan about intimate experiences with patients at the end of their lives. He had, for lack of a better word, an unshakeable faith in The Gospel at Colonus, because of all the factors that had led him to it. At that time, he hinted toward his own artistic transition as part of the process of this piece.

In the Fall of 2019, Charlie reached out to Mark J.P. Hood about collaborating on the show. I still remember the excitement around Mark coming to the office, the cool factor that arrived in his wake. When Mark departed, Charlie had that look in his eye. There is only one circumstance in which I have known Charlie Newell to look mischievous, and it’s when he’s about to make an incredible play. 

“It’s funny how me & Mark’s roles keep changing. In Chicago, I was doing mostly staging and he was doing mostly music & character, and now he’s doing staging and I’m doing musical theatre stuff!” – Charlie Newell, on the second day of rehearsal at the Getty Villa, immediately prior to sprinting up a set of stone steps as everyone yells at him to be careful.

Moments later in a moment of minor confusion on ensemble choreography, Mark J.P. Hood runs sprinting down those same steps to his flock, proclaiming “I got you! I got you!” before demonstrating the steps, singing a capella. 

Mark J.P. Hood, who is known for his performance on the television singing competition The Voice and his work at Black Ensemble Theater, Paramount Theater and more here in Chicago, has a similar look. A devastating twinkle betrays the constellation of harmonies cooking in his mind. Constellations and star maps could be used to describe Mark’s directing style. When approaching big picture staging, he’s careful to let each of his stars shine, while insisting on their universal context and synchronicity. 

Shari Addison and Company in The Gospel at Colonus at The Getty Villa. Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

Earlier, I spoke of the stone rolled from Chicago, and I meant that quite literally. There is a central stone in this production, the only remnant of John Culbert’s gorgeous set design from Chicago. This is the stone upon which Oedipus will throw himself humbly to be accepted into the city of Colonus. It is also where he will stand upon his death. In rehearsal Mark was working on the denial and eventual acceptance of Oedipus by the people of Colonus, matching his vocal design with the choreography. In this sequence the chorus sings in rounds, circling Oedipus on the stone, singing out as he pleads on his knees. They start up a rhythmic clap, the chorus reverses the harmony and their circle as strobe lights kick in. The music gets faster, the performers are clapping, until there’s a crescendo of nothing but music and voice, Oedipus is finally home and you are transported into what can only be called ecstasy.

There is abundant, ferocious talent in The Gospel at Colonus. So much so, I saw the show twice in Chicago & arranged to follow it to Los Angeles. The Getty Villa production is informed by the quirks of the stunning venue. It is a stone amphitheater on the top of a mountain, surrounded by the most beautiful Hellenistic architecture. The performers are costumed by Raquel Adorno in simple white robes and shawls that glow golden in the lighting, with plain sandals that invoke the time period. The textures, like Antigone’s braided dress with a lead in the back for Oedipus to cling to, enhance the clear storytelling. 

Sound must be under 65 decibels, and the production must lock all of the electronic instruments at that decibel level. Anyone who experienced the thundering vitality of the Chicago production will surely pause at this, remembering the power of that musical event.

Working with the Getty Villa restrictions has actually enhanced the most powerful component of the play. These stupendous voices, and the way they live in Mark J.P. Hood’s electric vocal arrangements. The singers are able to sing at full power, voices raising to the heavens, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. The canyons echo with interlacing notes you would usually have to attend an (excellent) Black church to hear. That is because the talent, including Mark, has experience with gospel music, and some with The Gospel at Colonus itself.

Eric A. Lewis (L) and Shari Addison (R) in The Gospel at Colonus at The Getty Villa. Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

Shari Addison, plays Choragos Soloist and possesses a soprano belt that will blow your cap back or make you cry on command. She shares an absolute throwdown of a duet with Eric A. Lewis (Choragos) as they put Oedipus on trial prior to entering Colonus. Shari Addison was playing Ismene in the touring production of The Gospel at Colonus when it ran at The Goodman Theatre in 1990. In rehearsals, Addison mentioned that she had to re-learn the music because Mark J.P. Hood had “flipped it on its head!” In the midst of that production she gave birth to her daughter, Jessica Brooke Seals who plays The Evangelist today! 

Jessica Brooke Seals and Company in The Gospel At Colonus at The Getty Villa. Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

Talent runs in the family. Seals’ performance in Chicago was gorgeous, like The Supremes had lent us a narrator for the day, but in Los Angeles she was rooted all the way in the ground. The Evangelist is the audience’s guide through the show, telling us what’s going on between the characters. Seals’ mastery of the text has only gotten sharper, and her voice is golden and resonant whether singing or speaking. Older folks were hemming and hawing at the story of Oedipus like it was today’s news, as relayed by Seals and Mark Spates Smiths’ Theseus.

Theseus is the preacher that walks with Oedipus through the story, sometimes stepping into the plot, sometimes narrating it. Mark Spates Smith caught the spirit the night that I saw him. At times you worry his voice might give out, but just like a real preacher he summons up the fire and suddenly a clear note will ring out as he moves seamlessly from speech to lyric. This tightrope of real effort is what makes The Gospel at Colonus so thrilling to watch, the performers really put themselves on the line. In addition to these shows of musical and storytelling power, they also employ meticulous restraint so the big moments can really shine.

Aeriel Williams as Antigone does not have much text in The Gospel at Colonus, but you can’t stop staring at her every time she is onstage. Williams’ Antigone has a gravity and maturity, a willfulness that makes me excited for her to helm the upcoming Antigone at The Court Theatre this fall. The lower volume of music also brings forth the meaningful runs and harmonies that she sings throughout, which were harder to hear in Chicago. Antigone’s reunion with her sister Ismene, played by a graceful actor and beautiful singer named Ariana Burks, has a greater emotional impact here. Antigone tries to teach Ismene how to reconnect with their father by teaching her to touch his face, and the joy of recognition is palpable.

L-R, Aeriel Williams, Ariana Burks, and Kelvin Roston Jr. and Company in The Gospel At Colonus at The Getty Villa. Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

At the top of the play, Antigone leads the blind Oedipus through the amphitheater, down a set of steps with the same white umbrella she had at the end of Oedipus Rex at Court in 2019. Kelvin Roston Jr. is resuming the titular role, and by God is he a revelation. I have been reviewing Kelvin and watching his work since arriving in Chicago and he has steadily improved his craft, becoming a more generous and specific performer with every project. Fans of Roston Jr. are familiar with his powerful tenor voice, but what struck me the most about this production was his use of restraint. Small, falsetto hums as he holds his daughters, and as he discovered “fair Colonus” actually cracked my heart.

Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

There is one song, Lift Me Up, about being in The Late Wind of Death, where he sings to the element to lift him up out of his body and out of this life. Oedipus sits on the floor of the stage, back against the stone, face up in a pale ghostly light, voice breaking in desperation then growing stronger as he fights to rise. Kelvin Roston Jr. as Oedipus is the performance of a lifetime.

Juwon Tyrel Perry sings a solo akin to a negro spiritual, standing up on the balcony of the enormous marble building behind the stage, and it is like Gabriel’s horn blowing across the amphitheatre. Cherise Thomas’ soprano is an irreplaceable asset to this show, and Kai Ealy’s bombastic portrayal of Polyneices almost makes you pity him when he doesn’t receive his father’s blessing to murder his brother. There is the stern and slick Creon played by Jason Huysman, who appears like the ghost of Joel Osteen bearing no good news. 

Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

The Gospel at Colonus is a balm for anyone who has been through a personal tragedy or reckoning, and also for the witnesses of these reckonings. A simple refrain: “mind his suffering, mind his death, mind his redemption,” feels so personally evocative, despite its generality.

The use of “to mind,” affirms the human need to be witnessed in our existence. Our pain, our pressure, our splinterings, our deaths, our loves, our betrayals, mean very little without the recognition of our peers. The Question: if a tree falls in the forest & no one is around, does it even make a sound? Exists for a reason. It exists because we are afraid that without witness, events have no meaning, no interpretation, and therefore no continuation. 

Oedipus knows this. He seeks a resting place, but integral to that place is a community & spirits to mourn him. 

“I bring advantage to this place.” – Oedipus

Oedipus’ refrain is of one who has faced great cruelty and needs the recognition of others to reclaim his self worth. The reclamation of purpose is what allows Oedipus to pass on. The collective witness is, in the end, consolidated into one person: Theseus. Theseus will be the only person to ever know how Oedipus dies and where he is buried, in order to protect his grave. 

Kelvin Roston Jr (Oedipus, L) and Kai Ealy (Polyneices, R) and company in The Gospel at Colonus at The Getty Villa. Photo by Cassia Davis. © 2023 J Paul Getty Trust.

Legacy is threaded throughout the show, including after Oedipus’ tragic scene where he curses Polyneices (Kai Ealy). Polyneices is the only character dressed in Black, his desire to rend revenge on his brother coming out of every pore. Oedipus snatches him up by the neck, and curses him to die at the hands of his own brother, saying what they will have of his kingdom is “just enough room to die in.”

After this moving scene is a new song written by the original composer named Bob Telsen. I learned while observing rehearsal that Bob saw the Chicago production over six times, and was so excited he decided to write a new song called “Love Unconquerable,” which marks the exit of Polyneices. This was a wonderful addition as it gives us a moment to understand the weight of Oedipus’ curse, to note Antigone’s role and reaction, and really clarifies the upcoming  Antigone, which begins with Polyneices’ death. Mark J.P. Hood blended it so well into the rest of the production that though I noticed the dramatic difference, it took me awhile to notice this was a newly added number.

The Gospel at Colonus is a tremendous charge to witness, to invest in personal and communal legacy, and a reminder to center love. Though it’s deeply religious in its style, at the end of the play when we’re asked what the show was all about, a woman behind me yelled out JESUS! But the answer was LOVE. In its specificity, The Gospel at Colonus lays an open table for all audiences. It is a timely piece as the legacy of Court Theatre shifts into its next era, and I am excited to see the focus of this classical cycle shift to Black women with Antigone. Gabrielle Randle, Associate Artistic Director at Court Theatre, and the Oedipus Cycle Dramaturg will direct with Aeriel Williams as the titular lead.  

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BIAS ALERT: I worked at Court Theatre from August 2019-August 2020, during which time we produced Oedipus Rex with much of the same cast. Gabrielle Randle and I began working at Court Theatre around the same time. I spent three days in rehearsal at The Getty Villa, before returning to see the performance September 15th, 2023.   I did not know Charlie Newell was planning to resign until the morning of September 15th and this announcement was sent to press. I would like to thank Ralph Flores and the Getty Villa staff for their hospitality, and Court Theatre for welcoming me into their rehearsal process and making this piece possible.

DIRECTOR – Charles Newell
CASTING – Becca McCracken, C.S.A.

OEDIPUS – Kelvin Roston Jr.
CREON – Jason Huysman 
ANTIGONE – Aeriel Williams
ISMENE – Ariana Burks
THESEUS – Mark Spates Smith
CHORAGOS – Eric A. Lewis
THE FRIEND, CHORUS – Juwon Tyrel Perry
EVANGELIST, CHORUS – Jessica Brooke Seals
CHORUS – Jerica Exum, Shantina Lynet’, Isaac Ray, Eva Ruwé

LEAD GUITAR – Oscar Brown, Jr.
KEYBOARD – Amr Fahmy
DRUMS – Tatum Flemister


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