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Mother-Daughter History in The Getty’s Gospel at Colonus

The Gospel at Colonus ensemble. © Craig Schwartz Photography
Mark Spates Smith as Theseus in The Gospel at Colonus. © Craig Schwartz Photography.

The Gospel at Colonus, opening Sept. 7, is the Getty Villa’s 17th annual Outdoor Classical Theater production. The unique show reimagines the Greek story of Oedipus as the centerpiece of an African-American Pentecostal church service. It’s an uplifting, less tragic adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus, the second play of Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy, bookended by Oedipus Rex and Antigone.

The Gospel at Colonus premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983 and has had a long and storied history since then, including runs on Broadway and Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, with a special performance at Carnegie Hall in 2013. The show has been updated with this production.

The cast, musicians and production team arrive at the Getty Villa from the University of Chicago’s esteemed Court Theatre, winner of the 2022 Regional Theater Tony Award. A COVID-delayed production of Gospel there earned raves during the 2022-23 season.

In the Court production is a performer who started onstage with the show in 1990: Shari Addison, then pregnant with a daughter, sang the opening number, “Live Where You Can.” Now, 33 years later, that daughter, Jessica Brooke Seals, sings the opening number while her mother looks on. (Later in the show, Addison burns down the house with “Lift Him Up.”)

Jessica Brooke Seals as Evangelist in The Gospel at Colonus. © Craig Schwartz Photography.
Shari Addison as Choragos, Aeriel Williams as Antigone, Kelvin Roston Jr. as Oedipus and Ariana Burks as Ismene in The Gospel at Colonus. © Craig Schwartz Photography

The mother (playing Choragos) and daughter (playing Evangelist) are members of the Court’s 15-person ensemble. Along with a talented band, they fill the amphitheater under the stars in Malibu with a joyful noise. Each gets a chance to shine; all are awesome singers and actors.

The Buzz spoke to Shari Addison and Jessica Brooke Seals about their experiences in The Gospel at Colonus.

More than three decades ago, in 1990, Addison relates, “I was six months pregnant and auditioning for the show. A friend told me not to worry, to trust the process. And sure enough, I got the part. I did the show until I went into labor on the last Thursday night. Jessica was born Friday, and the show closed that Sunday.

“The music for this show has been the musical score for her life.”

Seals says of this production, “My mother and I are onstage together almost the entire time. The support I get when I look over at her is unmatched. Sometimes I go back to when I was a little girl who was afraid to perform in front of crowds, whose mother had to face her away from the congregation. I’ll look over at her and she’ll tell me to have fun. That will completely comfort me. I’ll do what I love to do, and it turns out to be a great show every time.”

Born and raised on south side of Chicago, Addison grew up in the church. “My mother was the musical director of the choir. I’ve been singing since age three, when my mother would stand me on a chair to sing. She taught me you always sing like it’s your last time. That’s the work ethic I come to the table with. You never know when the last time might be, so I give it my all.”

Seals credits her mother with guiding her. “It’s a master class for me, still. Just like my mom  learned from her mother to perform like it’s her last time every time, I’m learning from her how to give my best every time I hit the stage. There will never be a time when you will come and not get my best performance.”

Gospel, says Seals, “was a huge part of my childhood. My three sisters and I wanted to sing with the group and later one sister and I did get to sing gospel quartet music. This show is about enjoying every moment that you can. Oedipus finds his resting place, to round out his bitter life. It’s a beautiful story, told by beautiful actresses, actors, singers and musicians.”

Addison has traveled with the show and its many performers over the course of 33 years. “Traveling with the cast of course you become family. I’ve been so honored to have been involved with the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Soul Stirrers and all the others. We performed in places as diverse as Russia, Sao Paolo and Central Park.”

The Court’s artistic director Charles Newell co-directs this production, with Mark J.P. Hood, who also serves as music director. Both are preachers’ sons who worked together to change up the show. Composer Bob Telson approved the new version. (Lee Breuer, who wrote the adaptation and original lyrics, died in 2021.)

Addison notes, “What Mark and Charlie did was give the show a face lift to bring it into the current times. They didn’t lose any of the integrity of the show and I’m loving it.”

The Gospel at Colonus plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm from Sept. 7-30, 2023. Previews run August 31, and Sept. 1 and 2, also at 8:00pm. Tickets are $30 for previews, with general admission ranging from $45-$55. Click here to purchase tickets. The Getty Villa is located at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, one mile north of Sunset. Parking is $10.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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