August 17, 2010

ROOT VALUES:

Interview: Jimmy Carter, singer, The Blind Boys of Alabama (Claire Prentice, 8/17/10, The Scotsman)

If tonight's concert is anything to go by, 61 years since they formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind, the Blind Boys have plenty of life in them yet. In August they are travelling to Edinburgh to appear at the International Festival with The Gospel At Colonus, a radical reworking of Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus At Colonus, which blends gospel music, rock'n'roll and soul.

Set in modern-day America, within the context of a black church service, the narrative is driven by a Pentecostal preacher while the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama collectively play the role of Oedipus. "I'm not really sure how that works as I haven't seen it," says a smiling Carter, the only remaining founding member of the Blind Boys. We are meeting the day after the group's show at Carter's hotel, a stone's throw from Central Park. "When we originally met with Lee Breuer and Bob Telson, the creators of the show, they said they wanted Oedipus to be a blind guy because he does go blind, he puts his eyes out. We Blind Boys got together to discuss the idea and we all thought it sounded interesting so we decided to do it. We had no idea what it would become."

Since then The Gospel At Colonus has played on Broadway and wowed critics and the public alike in cities across the globe (including an early workshop at the Edinburgh Fringe). It's been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and cast members have included Robert Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, who at the time, said, "I've been in a lot of shows in my life, and I've thought a lot of them were pretty good, but this is a masterpiece." Among stars who have sat in on the show are Stevie Wonder and Ry Cooder. Described by critics as "a miracle" and the "most electric and inventive show in American musical history", The Gospel At Colonus is an exhilarating ride which will make even the most hardened hearts soar.

And that is precisely why the Blind Boys are so delighted to be involved. After plugging away on the gospel circuit for decades, driving around the south in an old van and playing to mostly black audiences in churches and town halls, it gave them the chance to take their gospel message to a wider audience. Carter says: "We had a lot of setbacks but we never thought about giving up. We love what we do. Success came late for us but better late than never."

EIF audiences know the New York-based theatre director Lee Breuer for last year's Peter And Wendy and Mabou Mines' DollHouse in 2007. Co-creator Bob Telson is an Oscar-nominated composer and songwriter who played organ with the Philip Glass Ensemble in the 1970s and has written songs for Joe Cocker, Celine Dion, George Michael and Barbra Streisand.

"In the beginning I was concerned about how it would be received by religious groups," says Breuer. "But then I spoke to the Reverend Martin Jaycox, a good friend of mine who was involved in an early production, and he said to me: 'It is a play about redemption, love, faith and a return to root values. You've got 40 devout Pentecostalist gospel singers and three preachers there on stage. Don't worry, you've got a Christian production.'"


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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2010 6:05 AM
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