When I was invited to attend a "Gospel at Colonus" chorus rehearsal at the Jackson Revival Center, corner of Silas Brown and Langley Avenue, chill bumps swept over me. Alan Mann, director of the Mississippi Opera, had no idea the curiosity the rehearsal's location aroused in me.
What would it be like after all these years, I wondered, the church I had attended with my maternal grandparents from the '50s until the '70s? More importantly, what would it be like seeing African Americans in the pews? All those years ago, the neighborhood was nothing but white.
Mama Sudie and Daddy Hugh lived right across Langley, next door to the parsonage where Brother Ferrell and then Dr. Canterbury had lived with their families. The cream-colored brick church was known as Griffith Memorial Baptist Church back then, an imposing building in the Greek style, complete with columns and many steep steps leading up to the church's front doors on Silas Brown.
As I had many times in my youth, I entered the building from the side door on Langley, hearing the choir before I saw them. Standing just at the top of the stairs, listening for a few moments, I realized the truth, almost overcome with joy that the building still stood to serve the Lord—the house of worship was filled with worshipers. It mattered not their ethnicity.
Alan Mann, for one, is convinced that Jackson is the perfect place, filled with the right people, to make producing "The Gospel at Colonus" sensible, at the very least. The piece re-tells Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" in a modern-day Southern church service with a preacher, choir and congregation—the audience—and uses the American musical style known as gospel. For Mann, it was an inevitable inclusion in the Diamond Jubilee season of the Mississippi Opera.
Since he first heard the piece over 20 years ago at a workshop in New York, Mann has wanted to produce the show, but he'd never been in the right place. Now he is. Gospel, he told me, is a music heritage that is multigenerational for many: "This style of music in the South cuts across all artistic barriers—economic, ethnic, racial, educational. This is a common point of passion." Gospel music allows the Greek myth to tell the story of redemption and forgiveness.
Mann is also convinced that it is high time for gospel to be recognized for what it truly is. "The first gospel tour was in 1871. Gospel music has gotten to be a classic art form in this country, and it's time for the quote, unquote, classic music organizations to understand that," Mann whispered to me as we sat two sections over from where the choir worked with Joe Whitfield, their choir director and the chorus master for The Colonus Gospel Mass Choir.
That group includes four choirs—two classically trained to read sheet music, the Mississippi Opera Chorus and the older group from the Mississippi Girls Choir, and two that perform traditional gospel and are learning this oratorio by rote, the Anderson United Methodist Church Choir and the Jackson Revival Center Choir. "Each of the choirs is an established group, and each has its own learning and prep style," Mann said.
For the Anderson and Jackson Revival Center choirs, there's an innate understanding of the harmonies of gospel; once they know in this piece where their harmonies fall, Mann said, they respond to cues like "It's the Smokey Robinson thing or the Supremes or the Temptations" with the specific harmony needed. Mann said the main difference he's noticed for the two formally trained groups is the fact that they're involving their bodies in the music—no more standing still with gospel.
Concerning the principals in the production, Mann smiled and shook his head in awe as he explained, "The great thing about Mississippi—(usually) when we cast an opera, to get high-quality opera singers we have to bring in a sizeable percentage of them—in this gospel opera, we cast the same level or higher, all of them still here or from here." Fully half of the participants are Jackson State graduates, with, as Mann put it, a chunk from Tougaloo. He's as proud as if he were a native Jacksonian to be able to tell me that.
"'The Gospel at Colonus' is a dramatic oratorio with scenes, plots that are acted out, telling the story that has a moral," Mann said. "Greek theater focused on the concept of catharsis, a safe release of emotions, your deep emotions." Mann went on, "This piece is written to be incredibly moving … presenting the story in a style accessible to today's audience and making it an incredibly moving experience, rare in presentation."
The story starts when Oedipus, now 90 and self-blinded as atonement for his past actions and exiled from his hometown, is searching for sanctuary. He and his daughter Antigone arrive in Colonus, a suburb of Athens. An oracle has told him he will die in Colonus, so Oedipus won't leave, even though the citizens do not want him there—they're afraid the curse on him will spread onto them. The king allows Oedipus refuge, promising to bury him properly when the time comes. The story of Oedipus' redemption unfolds.
Mann wants this production to serve several purposes for Jacksonians, whether they're participating in the gospel opera or attending it. He'd like to attract people who've never attended an opera, to have them go beyond the stereotype that opera's only for a certain audience. One other thing Mann wants from "The Gospel at Colonus" is an auditorium full of people willing to experience a coming-together.
"One thing I've noticed as a Canadian is that Mississippi people are seriously striving to find a way for everyone to get together … so this show, which is a moralistic tale, is so appropriate to bring all groups together on a neutral ground."
Mann turned to look at the choir as Joe Whitfield instructed them, "We have to do the Baptist thing on this," speaking of the particular piece they were rehearsing. Mann exhaled, looked sideways back at me and gave me a look that said: "Did you get that? Do you understand the miracle in front of you?"
Yes, in more ways than one.
"The Gospel at Colonus" comes together at Thalia Mara Hall on Sat., Jan 29, at 7:30 p.m. Call 960-2300 or 1-877-676-7372 for ticket information.
A Cast of Locals:
The Gospel of Colonus
The Preacher Dr. Earl F. Miller
Oedipus The Reverend Teddy Cross
Oedipus Quartet Young Men in Christ
The Balladeer Vasti Jackson
Evangelist Antigone Tonea Stewart
The Colonus Quintet PurPose
Singer Antigone Cynthia Goodloe Palmer
Ismene Heather Clancy Allen
Theseus Dr. Lou Campbell
Polyneices Dr. Mark Henderson
Creon Pastor Ronald K. Moore
Derrick Burt, Vergia Dishmon and
The Jerry Smith Orchestra and
The Colonus Gospel Mass Choir
Joe Whitfield, chorus master
with members of
Anderson United Methodist Church Choir
—Sondra Bell, director
The Jackson Revival Center Choir
—Joe Whitfield, director
Mississippi Girl Choir
—Lillian Lee, director
Mississippi Opera Chorus
—Merina Dillard, chorus mistress