Ain't That Good News

Getting Real Gospel on the Zach Scott Stage

The sound is unmis- takable: voices united in glorious harmony, directed toward heaven, singing with fervor the praises of its divine ruler, a forceful beat as steady and insistent as wings in flight. There's no other music that sounds like this. It has to be gospel.

But hold on here! These sounds aren't coming from a sanctuary, this joyful noise isn't for any Sunday service. This music is ringing out from a theatre rehearsal hall on a Saturday afternoon; it's coming from a group of performers working on a play, and the play is about Oedipus. Yes, Oedipus, the legendary Greek king who blindly killed his father and wed his mother, and, when he learned what he had done, blinded himself literally. This couldn't be gospel... could it?

Oh yes.

You can feel it. The joy sets your insides to fluttering, so that it seems your heart has grown wings and is rising out of your chest. This is the real deal, and when the Zachary Scott Theatre Center production of The Gospel at Colonus opens October 6, you can feel it for yourself.

The mix may seem, well, ungodly, but The Gospel at Colonus does blend ancient Greek tragedy and modern gospel, and preserves the integrity of each. Director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson found many of the elements in Oedipus at Colonus, the drama of Oedipus' death and redemption, living on in the gospel tradition: the sense of life as a long journey, the travails of earth and the rewards of heaven, the importance of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation. They re-conceived the play as a church service in which Oedipus' story functions like an Old Testament tale, as a text on which sermons and spiritual lessons are set. A preacher narrates the drama, and the role of the chorus is taken by a choir, which delivers its comments in song. The deeply felt emotion of gospel even provides the catharsis so often talked about in Greek drama but rarely felt by modern audiences.

Just ask Dave Steakley, who was living in New York City when Breuer and Telson's original production of Gospel played on Broadway and experienced its power himself. "So much theatre hits the head first," he says. "Here, the throughline was directly to the heart and soul. It was the most immediate response I'd ever felt." Steakley says he was "completely blown away by the scale of the project as well as the music," which in the Broadway production was performed by some of gospel's greatest modern stars, including the Five Blind Boys from Alabama. "It was just an unbelievable theatre experience," Steakley continues. "I've never seen a New York audience respond that way to a show... there was a tremendous sense of community and outpouring of soul, a link among everyone in the audience." The show affected Steakley so deeply that he went back to see it two more times. Though he was not directing at the time, he remembers that "it was something that I knew I wanted to be a part of."

Flash forward a couple of years and Steakley is back in Austin, his old home, serving as Zach Scott's Managing Director and directing some of the theatre's mainstage musicals. His partner at the theatre is Artistic Director Alice Wilson, and Steakley says that one day she casually asked him, "Have you ever read The Gospel at Colonus?" "I told her, `It's my favorite play on the planet,'" he recalls, and the two immediately decided that Zach would someday produce Gospel. "We decided that it was a project that we would build toward," says Steakley. "We should make it one of the goals that we would try to achieve."

The scope of the production demanded that the theatre carefully lay the groundwork for the production. The cast called for at least 25 people, most if not all of them African-American artists. The theatre would need not only to develop its professional resources to be able to stage such an ambitious work, but also to find and nurture the talent that could rise to Gospel's demands.

In the five years since their first conversation about The Gospel at Colonus, Steakley and Wilson produced shows that formed a stairway up to Gospel, each one bringing in more African-American performers and honing their talents. As artists Judy Arnold, Janis Stinson, Felicia Dinwiddie, Jacqui Cross, Roderick Sanford, and Kenneth Williams were dazzling audiences in Zach's productions of Beehive, Rockin' Christmas Party, Dreamgirls, Avenue X, and Five Guys Named Moe, they were also in training for The Gospel at Colonus.

When it came to seeking out additional artists to fill out the company, Steakley and musical director Allen Robertson went to the most natural source possible: Austin's gospel community to find the right talent for the show. Separately and together they attended concerts and services by some of the premier gospel vocalists in the city. "We went and saw Voices of Christ and Resurrection and some of the other gospel choirs in town," says Robertson. "And we thought it would be foolish not to try to get one of them or a talent like Claudia Williams for our show."

"The number one person on our list was Claudia Williams," Steakley adds. "She is extraordinary. She leads the Voices of Christ and is also the director at St. James [Missionary Baptist Church]. Our hope was that she would be our choir director. But Claudia is in such demand, and there were just too many concerts" for her to be able to join the project. Williams was, however, still able to make an important contribution to the production. "Claudia's been extraordinarily helpful and supportive," insists Steakley. "She led us to a number of talented singers and offered advice. Claudia's seal of approval on anybody was extremely important to us."

The performers who had already cut their teeth at Zach also aided in securing quality singers for Gospel. "Janis and Judy were very helpful in getting the word out," says Robertson, noting two cast members whose gospel roots run deep. They and other performers carried information to their churches, where announcements about auditions for the production were made directly from the pulpit. "I think this show has been talked up to an extraordinary degree," observes Steakley. He credits his artists, who have become missionaries of a sort, spreading the news of the production to congregations, pastors, and deejays, who have in turn passed the news to others in the community. The response thrilled Steakley.

Ultimately, Steakley and Robinson were able to cast 25 individuals, with the leading roles filled by guest artist William Earl Ray and seven Zach veterans. The company is drawn from 11 different area congregations: First Baptist, Mt. Carmel Baptist, Mt. Olive Baptist, Mt. Zion Baptist, Greater Mt. Zion Baptist, St. James Missionary Baptist, Praise Tabernacle Outreach and Family Worship Center, House of Redemptive Love, Church of the New Testament, Church of God in Christ #1, and Wesley United Methodist. Even considering how carefully he worked to recruit great musicians, Steakley is awed by the level of talent in the company. "We have some of the leading soloists in town, some veterans of Voices of Christ, incredible solo voices who are taking parts in the choir to be part of this production."

The quality of these artists was evident immediately. Robertson, arguably the busiest theatre artist in Austin, started rehearsals for Gospel when he was still providing musical direction for the production of Sweeney Todd by Live Oak Theatre at the State. "It was odd coming to Gospel off of Sweeney," he observes. "In both cases, I'm working with such incredible musicians," but of such different kinds. "At Sweeney," he continues, "I was working with all these people who had master's degrees in opera performance and music, and they'd be talking about intervals and such... they're very smart and it's very easy to communicate with them and get them to a high level. Then I come to Gospel, and they're reading energy, as opposed to some technical, trained thing. They respond to emotional direction. Some things you have to explain a little more but they're so quick about picking them up. That first morning, we learned all the music in about an hour and a half. They attack the music; they just jump in and there's no bashfulness. And they follow a leader better than any group I've ever worked with. It's so physical and emotional. I'm usually a very energetic choir director anyway, but they pull me up a step higher."

Some of the concerns the production team anticipated have ended up not being concerns at all. In the original production, some conflict developed over the idea that Christian artists were being asked to celebrate essentially a pagan myth. Robertson says that "I probably had more concerns about that than anyone. I come from a Church of Christ background, very conservative. What are they talking about when they say `gods'? But that has not been an issue at all. It's like Dave has said, `This certainly isn't the Bible, but there are a lot of correlating themes.' The show is presenting their world view. And while I don't mean to speak for the cast, I think everybody's secure in their faith. They know it's a story. I mean, it's not like this show is going to make someone go, `I think I'll start worshipping Zeus.' There's not a conversion factor here."

Likewise, the potential problems involved in using a large number of performers who had never worked in a theatre never materialized. "There's a lot of mentoring going on," Steakley suggests. "Those performers that have had a lot of stage time at Zach are helping their fellow performers. Sometimes when someone doesn't understand something, that gets handled between the performers, which is great. They work off each other so well. The first day we had the choir, it sounded like they'd been together six weeks."

By the time I hear them on a Saturday afternoon, they sound as if they've been together six years. Even though the time of the day, the day of the week, and the stage in the rehearsal process are all working against them, the sound is tight enough to give me goosebumps. Judy Arnold leans over to me and whispers, "When we get in the theatre, it's gonna reach to the sky."

Talking to Steakley a week later, even before they have moved out of the rehearsal room, it sounds as if the sky is theirs. "When we got to the final moments last night," he tells me, "even in that sterile room, the spirit that was in there made me weep." He reflects on his journey to this place, not as long as the one trod by Oedipus, but with its share of trials. "It was a challenge," he admits, "but it was a challenge I wanted and it's very dear to my heart in terms of what's being communicated. Not that the process has been easy, but rarely are those things you treasure or value most easy. It's an unbelievable feeling for me to stand in that room. I'm so privileged to be a part of that, that those artists allow me to come into their world. I feel extraordinarily blest."

Ain't that good news. Man, ain't that news. n

The Gospel at Colonus runs October 5-November 10 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage.

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