Hoy Zeus!: Gobsmacked by Gospel Colliding with Greek Tragedy at Getty Villa

In 2022, Getty Villa’s annual outdoor theater show, which – in keeping with the Romanesque museum’s décor and displays – are devoted to staging ancient Greek and Roman theater, mounted Sophocles’ Oedipus, about the ill-fated Theban king who, unwittingly, slew his father and married his mother. (Whoopsy!) Now, in that grand show biz tradition of “sequels,” this year Getty Villa is presenting a highly idiosyncratic version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Which chronologically is the second part of dramatist’s Oedipal trilogy (with Antigone being his grand finale). The 17th annual Villa Outdoor Classical Theater production is entitled The Gospel at Colonus, an unlikely hybrid of Greek tragedy and African American gospel music and spirituality.

Set in antiquity at a village near Athens, The Gospel at Colonus recounts the last days of Oedipus, blind after he’d plucked his own eyes out after learning the facts about his horrific acts of patricide and incest. In the 1980s theater director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson (who are, I believe, both Caucasians) got the bright idea of combining Greek Drama with a gospel vibe. The resulting musical The Gospel at Colonus is a raucous, spicey Black/Greek gumbo, which is likely to convey to viewers a sensibility that is more Pentecostal church than an ancient Greek temple like the Parthenon. 

The almost all-Black cast of 15 players (if I recall correctly, one actor who appears briefly is white) are mostly garbed in white robes (not togas, alas, designed by Raquel Adorno). They sing in the gospel style (accompanied by a five-piece live band), dance, repeatedly do call-and-responses with the multi-culti audience and, in general, they seem to do what the spirit say do, as the traditional “Negro spiritual” advised. Not to say that there aren’t a written script and lyrics per se, but I suspect that the performers had leeway for spontaneous outbursts of joy or lamentation as their emotions moved them. The result is good fun, superimposing a life affirming Christian sense of redemption over the Grecian tragic edge of doom and gloom mandated by the gods.

According to press notes, the musical is presented by Court Theatre, the Tony Award-winning professional theatre of the University of Chicago, as directed by Mark J.P. Hood and Court Theatre’s Marilyn F. Vitale artistic director Charles Newell, with associate director TaRon Patton and associate music director Mahmoud Khan. The cast includes: Kelvin Roston Jr. (Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., and South Side), Jason Huysman, Aeriel Williams (National Tour’s The Color Purple, Off-Broadway’s Trevor: The Musical), Kai A. Ealy (61st Street, The 4400, Ordinary Joe, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Fire), Ariana Burks (Beats, South Side, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, The Jr. Cuisine Cooking Show, and PrankStars), Mark Spates Smith (The 4400, Black Lightning, The Chi, Chicago P.D., Empire, and Shining Girls), Shari Addison (The Gospel at Colonus World Tour), Eric A. Lewis (National Tour’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Off-Broadway’s Spamilton), Juwon Tyrel Perry (North Carolina Theatre, Paramount Theatre, Geva Theatre Center, and Chicago Shakespeare), Jessica Brooke Seals (Black Ensemble Theater’s The Other Cinderella, Paramount Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and Mercury Theater’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Women of Soul) and Cherise Thomas (Broadway’s Waitress). The chorus includes: Jerica Exum (National Tour’s Waitress), Shantina Lynet, Isaac Ray (Black Ensemble Theater’s A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti Labelle and Urban Love Story), and Eva Ruwé (Theatre at the Center’s Little Shop of Horrors).

Just a couple of observations from your atheistic critic: Although I don’t remember Christianity and Jesus being mentioned per se in Colonus, the play’s gospel aesthetic strongly suggests the church. But from a theological point of view this is quite dubious, as Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus in circa 401 BC, about half a millennium before the birth of Jesus. Remember that BC stands for “Before Christ,” so the musical’s timeline makes no sense, as Greece’s pantheistic pagan religion is far older than Christianity. (Although religions rarely let common sense stand in the way of their grand, usually unexamined assumptions and illusions.)

The first production of Oedipus at Colonus was at the Festival of Dionysus, celebrating that Olympian god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy. I’d also add that superimposing Christianity over heathenism is an act of cultural imperialism – even godless pagans have rights. I sincerely doubt that Mssrs. Breuer and Telson paid a single solitary cent to Sophocles’ estate/descendants for misappropriating his intellectual property, which obviously the Greek playwright is unable to defend in a court of law. (Greek theater purists may think the musical should be called “Oedipus Wrecked” and may even spot poor Sophocles’ body rolling in his grave across the amphitheater’s stage…)

But these are mere quibbles. I greatly enjoyed The Gospel at Colonus, which arguably has a Dionysian flair in terms of “festivity, madness and wild frenzy.” It is a highly entertaining, outrageous extravaganza, a 90-minute spectacle and pageant performed without intermission beneath the stars at the city-state of Malibu’s very own Epidaurus that left most audience members smiling and glad to be alive. It left me gratefully musing: “Thank god I’m an atheist!” 

The Gospel at Colonus takes place 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through September 30, 2023, at the Getty Villa’s Outdoor Classical Theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272. Tickets: (310)440-7300 or

Meanwhile, the Getty Center is hosting a film screening of Araya on September 16 from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. to complement the Getty Research Institute’s current exhibition “Alfredo Boulton: Looking at Venezuela (1928–1978).” The Venezuelan documentary Araya won the Cannes Film Festival’s FIPRESCI Prize and was nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 1959, and shines a light on the harsh living conditions faced by people working in the salt mines on a small coastal region of Venezuela’s Caribbean peninsula. The event will be followed by a conversation between the curators and a public reception with food and drinks in the Museum Lecture Hall at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90049.