It's a joyous 'Gospel at Colonus' reunion at First Unitarian Church

Paula Holloway in “The Gospel at Colonus,” through June 10 at First Unitarian Church.

“Can I tell you? I love this show.”

Audrey Mikell sang a leading role in The Gospel at Colonus when that Obie Award-winning musical — marrying black gospel music to Greek tragedy — played in a storied performance at People’s Light in Malvern in 1995.

And love has brought the former Philly resident back, all the way from Rocky Mount, N.C., where she lives now, to join more than 60 voices in Gospel, which opened Friday and plays through June 10 in a Coatesville Cultural Society production at First Unitarian Church in Center City.

It’s a reunion, a revival, and a very big deal – especially for the cast.

In 1995, People’s Light co-founder Danny Fruchter organized singers from several Coatesville churches and produced 25 Gospel performances in an outdoor amphitheater built for the show, attracting a total audience of 20,000. “All these people have been telling me for years, ‘Let’s do it while most of us are still around,’ ” he says. So Gospel now comes to Center City for the first time.

Mikell, an alto, is staying with family in Philly during the run. She joined the original People’s Light production just for fun at first, but then she sang her way into the part of the Choragos, the leader of the chorus. She makes a hair-raising entry in “Stop: Do Not Go On.”

“A lot of the people from back in ’95 are with us again,” Mikell says. “Those were great summer nights, a family atmosphere, community coming together. I’m just glad we’re able to do it again.”

The Gospel at Colonus debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, won an Obie Award in 1984, and was a Pulitzer finalist in 1985. It was written by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson, based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, a tragedy first performed in 401 B.C.

“The surprising thing is that it really works,” says Bishop Bruce Parham, who is singing the demanding central role of Oedipus, just as he did in 1995. “The profundity of the Greek myth and the exuberance, the soulfulness of Gospel singing, come together beautifully. And many of the themes are parallel. When Oedipus must undergo the rites of passage, for example, it’s like Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane.”

Camera icon Aaron Lucas
Bruce Parham in “The Gospel at Colonus.”

Parham is a recording artist as well as longtime pastor of Oasis of Refreshing Ministries in Wilmington, and is bishop of a network of churches locally and in Texas. “Church people can relate to this story,” he says.

Carla Harvey, co-conductor of the choir in 1995 and now, agrees: “This may be a Greek story, but there’s no divide when you want to celebrate the spirit.”

Oedipus, in brief

Not sure you’ll be able to follow the Greek myth?

“We tell the story right at the start so everyone can follow,” Fruchter says. Once a great king, Oedipus has taken on the worst of human sins and wanders the earth, alone, old, hobbled, and blind. This sacrificial figure finally comes to the town of Colonus, where prophecy says he shall die. Parham sings the wrenching song “A Voice Foretold”:

A voice foretold
That at my grave
Down my God shall come
My soul to save
And I shall be
Endowed with grace
And I shall find
My resting place

Fruchter, long retired from People’s Light, is co-founder of the Coatesville Cultural Society theater group and the dynamo behind this reunion.

“It was community-based at the start, with two-thirds of the singers coming from Coatesville churches, and it’s still community-based,” he says. “That was the first time it was ever done in an outdoor amphitheater, as the Greeks did it. And this is now the first time it will be done in a church.”

Camera icon Aaron Lucas
(Left to right:) Saundra Duncan, Bruce Parham, and producer Danny Fruchter rehearse “The Gospel at Colonus,” running through June 10 at First Unitarian Church.

“It’s like we’re not missing a beat,” says Harvey, who in her day job is a special-education paraprofessional for the Coatesville Area School District. “I was ecstatic a year ago when Danny called me. He’s gone above and beyond to get us where we are now.”

She remembers the People’s Light show, 90 people in the choir, evening temperatures in the 90s: “No matter how hot it was, you had to go with what your heart and soul told you.”

‘Feel the history’

For the current production, the choice of First Unitarian was deliberate. “We want everyone to feel the history of this place,” Fruchter says. The Rev. William Henry Furness, father of architect Frank Furness, was the church’s first minister, from 1825 to 1875, and an outspoken abolitionist.

The theater group also wanted a downtown church “so we could have a diverse audience, so everyone could experience each other,” Fruchter says.

Harvey calls coming to Center City “coming home, to our Broadway.”

It’s such a soul-filling production,” says Tariya Edwards, a choir soprano in Gospel. The People’s Light show brought the audience to its feet, she says, “just raising up as one.”

As Edwards says, the story of Oedipus may be a tragedy, but Gospel is famous for elevating the spirit. Credit the music, the singers – and the high-soaring poetry of Sophocles.

Though buffeted by fate, Oedipus is still a noble example of humanity’s place in the cosmos: “Numberless are the world’s wonders,” the ancient Greek playwright wrote. “But none more wonderful than man.”

 Theater

The Gospel at Colonus

Through June 10, Coatesville Cultural Society at the First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: 610-384-1790, colonusinphilly.org.