The Gospel at Colonus

Last night’s performance of The Gospel At Colonus at the Edinburgh Playhouse was absolutely, comprehensively, quite righteously brilliant.

Technicolour lighting, kitsch Da Vinci-on-acid backdrops, elegant Greek forum staging, uplifting gospel singing, enthusiastic standing ovations, all laid over a 2,500 year old text by the Greek philosopher, Sophocles.

There were stand-out performances by the Blind Boys of Alabama, who collectively play the part of Oedipus, particularly Jimmy Carter, who shook and grooved and beckoned the audience like  Stevie Wonder meeting Ray Charles aged 80.

There’s only one problem.  I am thick and uneducated.

In fact two problems.  I am also perturbed by slavery.

Come to think of it, three.  God doesn’t do it for me.

Despite the performance being utterly wonderous, it left me wondering what it was all about.  Unfortunately, I only got Higher English and we never studied the Greek tragedies.  I’ve dabbled in them since then but found them too hard-going for bed-time reading.

Call me an idiot, and I know you will, but I just didn’t get it.

The Stage

The overall story of Oedipus marrying his mother, killing his father, fathering his sister/daughters and brother/sons, then blinding himself as an act of contrition is fine.  The part about him going to another city, away from home, and finding peace with strangers through forgiveness and remorse is great.

But I didn’t get all the storyline bits between.

I know, I know, I’m really, really stupid.  It took me almost 20 years to get into Shakespeare.  But the good news, is that when I eventually ‘got it’ I was dumbstruck by his brilliance and now become ‘Livid of Leith’ when actors don’t do it justice.

Jimmy Carter and Carolyn Johnson-White

So there’s my ignorance problem: despite the fact that The Gospel At Colonus was moving, sorrowful, poignant, tragic and joyful, I couldn’t understand what was going on.

Then there’s my problem with slavery.  The origins of Gospel music came from slavery mixed with christianity during the ‘pure’ slavery days from 1619 until 1865 when it was eventually abolished in USA.  Gospel continued to develop under the more refined form of slavery: the Jim Crow Era in American history from 1870 till 1968 where black people lived an apartheid existence in the land of the free. This period was then followed by the Prison Industrial Complex till the present day where 1 in 14 black men are currently in prison.

I could not get over the fact that every single member of the cast is still touched by slavery.

A very close relative of mine is a slave.  He has no legal or political rights.  He cannot vote.  If he is assaulted, he cannot get justice.  If his employers underpay him he cannot sue them.  His job requires him to work 60 hours per week and he is taxed at 40% despite earning minimum wage.

So to relieve the stress of his existence, he goes to the gospel churches, here in Edinburgh, for 3-hour services and sings his heart out.  Sometimes he prays to be rich, sometimes he dreams of going home and sometimes he wishes he were dead because ‘this is not a life’.

I was reminded of him while being thrilled by the spectacle at the Edinburgh Playhouse.  The history and roots of gospel, and ‘negro spirituals’ come from the real life cultural insanity of slavery.  But slavery is not a thing of the past.  It is alive and kicking right here and now in our Western capitals across the globe.

Antigone and Ismene

In America currently, one in of three black men are destined for prison.  Despite being only 13% of the population, black people represent nearly 80% of the prison population in New Jersey and other states.  In America, the 13th Amendment to the constitution states that no man shall be a slave unless he be in prison.

There are over 1 million people without status living and working in the UK.

This means that every single member of the cast is cursed by at least one of their family being a 21st century slave.

Plus I know many African performers at the Festival who signed their employment contract in Africa with white impresarios and are consequently paid £50 per week for 9 two-hour performances a week, sell-out shows with standing ovations in top venues around the city.

Then there’s god.  Okay, so he’s a great solace for the downtrodden and the poor but does he have to be the conqueror’s god?

The Edinburgh International Festival 2010 is about colonisation, oceans apart, the New and Old worlds and cultural diversity.  What pains me is that Jonathan Mills, director of the Festival has done it so well.

Gospel at Colonus

I have been tortured and uplifted by the cross-cultural stagings, multicultural casts, tragic messages of hope and the intimate look into the soul of the colonised and coloniser’s mind.

If I am troubled by the cornucopia of a programme that has been dished up for me and the punters, then the Edinburgh International Festival has most certainly exceeded all my expectations. I have been moved.

To be troubled and inspired by art, despite one’s abject ignorance, is the sign of a great artistic mind at work.



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