In a New Revival of Oedipus Rex, Ancient Greek Gets a Relevant Refresh

Kelvin Roston, Jr., center, flanked by the cast of Oedipus Rex at the Court Theatre.
Photo: Michael Brosilow (The Court Theatre)

It’s been a year full of revivals in Chicago, and in an era where the Greek chorus has been replaced by the legions on Black Twitter, some might wonder what relevance a revival of Sophocles’ circa-429 B.C. tragedy, Oedipus Rex, holds for contemporary audiences. But as a new production at the University of Chicago-based Court Theatre proves, there is still much to be gleaned from the ancient play, the first in the theater’s three-part “Oedipus Trilogy” which will continue in May 2020 with The Gospel at Colonus and conclude with Antigone in the 2020/21 season.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the Court provides the following synopsis:

Oedipus seeks to cure his city of a mysterious plague by discovering the murderer of the former king. Captivating and cathartic, Sophocles’ seminal Greek tragedy brings to light enduring questions of identity, fate, and free will that reverberate in startling ways in the 21st century.

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With Kelvin Roston, Jr. in the titular role alongside an age- and ethnically diverse cast of talents, this is an Oedipus for a new age. The set is stark; metallic and architectural, a foreboding chasm literally crafted into its floor. The costumes are, for the most part, ethereal, yet almost Eileen Fisher-like in their layered accessibility. And with both earthy choreography and moments of breath-fueled harmony, there is a deeply visceral quality to the Court’s production, directed by Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director Charles Newell.

Fresh off the starring role in August Wilson’s King Hedley II, produced at the Court in September to October of this year, Roston gives an earnest and powerful performance as the doomed king of Thebes, showering his subjects with a benevolence that effectively transforms into confusion, rage, then profound grief as he pieces together the truth about his past and its place in a terrifying prophecy. But as well-crafted as Roston’s lead performance is, the chorus of Oedipus Rex may ultimately be its stars: an amalgamation of unique talents gleaned from the Chicago theatrical community, each brings striking and often catalytic depth to this well-known tale.

But the play’s purpose and production are equally compelling; recruiting both theatrical and non-theatrical artists to collaborate on the Oedipus Trilogy, there is a very intentional focus on community, which include free group dialogues, classes, workshops and programs through the course of the trilogy’s production.

Per a press release:

These public programs will examine the issues of fate, redemption, and justice central to the Oedipus Trilogy, as well as the history of Chicago’s South Side...Each program encourages audiences and participants to relate these classic texts to the experiences of African Americans during the Great Migration to Chicago’s South Side, the legacy of Black cultural production that has emerged from the South Side, and the enduring challenges residents face in the city today.

Taking as their core texts Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy and Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, residents will trace the themes that connect Oedipus’ position in ancient Thebes with the position of blacks in the Deep South during the early decades of the 20th century. They will compare Oedipus’ journey from Thebes to Colonus seeking to escape his fate and free his children with a similar hero’s journey–that of African Americans from the Deep South to the South Side of Chicago. Using the script and music from Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus, participants will discuss the explosion of culture on Chicago’s South Side as a result of the Great Migration and redlining, including the mid-century flourishing of gospel music, soul music, blues, and the more recent development of house music. Finally, they will look at the out-migration of African Americans from the South Side due to lingering issues of justice.

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“Our community-based approach to the Oedipus Trilogy will infuse Court’s work with a new and unique dynamism,” says Newell. “This trilogy represents a new chapter in the way Court approaches contributing to the classic canon, introducing a vital and distinctive community component to strengthen our work in exciting ways.”

Oedipus Rex is in production at Chicago’s Court Theatre through Dec. 8; tickets are available here. For more information on the Oedipus Trilogy, visit the Court Theatre website.

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Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.