Few events in the theatre evoke more anticipation than opening night. Events leading up to the Opening night for The Gospel at Colonus have flooded my memory with earlier openings and the elements that make them both thrilling and poignant. Opening night is the night that a director turns the show over to the cast, and in this case, the cast, crew, band and choir. It is poignant and I am almost always sad to bid the director adieu. In this case, I am certainly sorry to bid good-bye to director Andi Chapman, with whom I have relished working.
Yes, tonight marks the night when Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting cues are set, the sound has been programmed and mixed by designer Philip G. Allen in the days leading up to tonight. Naila Aladdin Sauders’ last-minute costume adjustments will have been made. As Stage Manager, my role will be to make sure that the cast continues to do the show according to the realized visions of the director and musical director, Abdul Hamid Royal. So to that extent it is complete. We are ready to open.
Historically, Opening night is the night when a show reaches maturity, solidifies, or in the immortal words of Ethel Merman,
”Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”
This is ironic considering that what we do in the theatre is the antithesis of frozen. There is nothing solid in the activity that transpires between a cast on stage and an audience in the house, which is, after all, what theatre is – the meeting of story tellers and story receivers. Our art is ephemeral in the purest and most exhilarating form.
The Gospel At Colonus’ specialness sits somewhere between the edge of the stage and the gold carpeted stairs leading into the auditorium. I have watched it over the past two nights of previews. The show is not frozen, nor is it confined to a passive experience on the part of the audience, nor by rote or perfunctory performances by anyone on stage. It is a living, breathing celebration of our humanity.
In the past several days, our preview performances coincided with the terrible events transpiring in South Carolina and the aftermath of the senseless murder of 9 people in the historic Emmanual A.M.E. Church. On Wednesday night, during our invited dress, at Intermission, when I checked my phone, I had received a CNN bulletin about the events. I shut my phone off to silence the cacophony of my emotions to finish the show. Over the next two days, as we have all processed our feelings individually, I have taken great solace in the work before me each night, both from the cast and band and choir, and from witnessing the effect of that work on the audiences, as they stood throughout the show to applaud and sway in time with the music.
The story of Oedipus’ redemption on stage was eerily mirrored yesterday by the incredible grace of the families in the courtroom as one by one, they forgave the young terrorist Dylann Roof for his unfathomable actions.
I believe in the power of theatre to heal. I believe in the spiritual power of this theatrical event. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply spiritual person with a strong belief in the power of the human experience both one on one and in a theatre as a transformative power. Whatever is happening out in the world, and there are some pretty horrible things happening out there, the theatre has always been my church. I have taken comfort post-tragedy in the shared and sacred spaces of theatrical creativity – on the night after 9/11, from the booth at the Canon Theatre, where I watched the cast of the Vagina Monologues perform their words with heavy hearts, to the first preview of The Gospel At Colonus, where the words and music of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson can’t help but be tinged with our collective heartache over the events in South Carolina.
I have been healed by the fervor and passion and raw talent gathered on the stage at the liminal space between that top step and the house.
Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.
The welcome disorientation of those on stage and the audience in the house for The Gospel At Colonus is the strongest I have ever felt in the theatre.
Last night on headset, I reported to the crew during “Lift Him Up”
“The first row is standing and clapping.”
“Now the second row is up.”
Tonight’s Opening night promises to be thrilling as all opening nights in the theatre are, but especially keen due to the gifts of these artists in this place and in this time. This production’s scale and cost is a gamble for any theatrical producer, and Wren T. Brown along with Gayle Hooks of the Ebony Repertory Theatre have nurtured the production to beautiful fruition.
It is such an honor to be working with these artists and I celebrate continuing to break down that fourth wall with our audiences in the coming weeks.