Sunday, August 9, 2020, Theater of War Productions performed “Antigone in Ferguson” via Zoom. The production was translated, directed, and conducted by Bryan Doerries and co-facilitated by De-Andrea Blaylock Johnson. Music was composed by Dr. Philip Woodmore. This is a production that has been performed all over the world, and the company looks forward to doing live performances again when the pandemic is under control. This production commemorates the shooting and killing of Michael Brown six years ago this past weekend.
It is based on the play by the ancient Greek, Sophocles, who wrote the play about 2500 years ago. A brief history of Greek theater may be beneficial to some. The Greeks in Athens at the time were establishing the first democracy — that is, direct election of leadership. This was not like our modern democracies where the whole population votes, but at the time, it was the elite of the population. It was also a time when education, science, philosophy, mathematics, and the arts were revered. Every year, there would be a festival where plays were performed. Probably hundreds of playwrights participated, but only the works of four have been passed down through the ages, often painstakingly handwritten. Of those four, only some of their works survived. For instance, Aeschylus wrote about 90 plays and only seven tragedies survived. Euripides wrote about the same amount but fared a little better with 19 existing today. This is because, out of of the three tragedians, he was the probably the most popular. Sophocles, who wrote the original “Antigone,” wrote well over 100 plays, but only seven survived including the most famous, “Oedipus Rex.” Aristophanes, who wrote comic drama, had a better percentage of 11 out of forty, along with many fragments. The plays that survived did so for a reason. They dealt with the social, emotional, and political conditions that still resonate with audiences today — war, tyrants, and political upheaval.
Sophocles wrote “Antigone” as part of a trilogy and, like others, was presented at the same time with his two Oedipus plays. Athens had gone through 80 years of war and a plague that killed one third of the population. According to Greek myth, Creon became King of Thebes after the death of Oedipus who was both his nephew and brother-in-law because Oedipus unwittingly married his own mother. Right before the start of the play, Oedipus’ two sons commit double fratricide. Creon was then next in line for the throne when Polynices kills Eteocles, his brother, and his brother kills him — one fighting for Thebes, one against.
“Antigone” picks up the plot as Creon has taken power and demands that Polynices’ body be left to animal scavengers while his brother gets a hero’s burial. Antigone cannot abide by this decision and decides to give her brother a proper funeral. Her sister, Ismene, at first asks her not to fight the present ruler and says she will not help her sister bury their brother. Later, she has a heart and offers to help, but Antigone rebuffs her. Creon is incensed to hear about the burial and vows to kill Antigone who just happens to be the betrothed of Creon’s son, Haemon. A prophet, Tiresias, warns Creon that killing Antigone and not burying her brother will anger the gods and bring about the death of his own son — the only offspring and heir to the throne. Creon panics and has a change of heart but there is a reason this is a tragedy.
The play looks at absolute power — power by birthright rather than what the citizens want and an incompetent power. Did Creon need a prophet to tell him killing Antigone for burying her brother was wrong?
It also looks at political protest. Antigone is warned and threatened not to go against Creon and obey the law, but she does so regardless of her own safety and at one point, the safety of her sister. By not doing what is right, Creon brings about his own downfall and the loss of those he loves. Politics is often fraught with unintended consequences.
“Antigone in Ferguson” follows Sophocles’ script, although, the playwright never could have imagined it being performed on Zoom. It veers from the script with the Chorus, in this case Choir, that sings music that is part Broadway musical and part black, spiritual gospel. The group was not totally electronically synced, but that did not hinder the enjoyment of their voices or temper their enthusiasm.
From her home, Tracie Thoms did a fantastic portrayal of the young rebel, Antigone. Oscar Isaac captured the anger and stubbornness of Creon as well as his anguish when the king becomes the real loser.
I am a great fan of Greek drama, and if you are, “Antigone in Ferguson” will not disappoint you.
The supporting cast includes Blaylock, Ato Blankson Wood, Marjolaine Goldsmith, Jumaane Williams, Duane Foster, and Willie Woodmore in a standout performance as the prophet, Tiresias.
Several of the cast are professional actors with long lists of credits both in theatre, movies, and television. (Note: If you check out who has performed for this group, it is a list of who’s who in Hollywood and New York theater.) Some of the cast are political activists. Blaylock attended and worked at the same high school as Michael Brown. There were members of the chorus who were teachers at that high school as well.
Before the play started Cori Bush, who is running for Congress from the District that includes Ferguson and part of St. Louis, opened the night with a plea to vote and to take part in changing the political and social structure of our country. It was followed by a panel discussion that included Gwen Carr (Eric Garner’s mother), Valerie Bell (Sean Bell’s mother), Marion Gray-Hopkins (Gary Hopkins, Jr.’s mother) and Uncle Bobby X (Oscar Grant’s uncle) and lead by Doerries who is also the artistic coordinator of the theater. If the names of those in parenthesis sound familiar, they were all young black men shot and killed by the police. After each panelist told how they felt about the production, audience members from around the world Zoomed in to contribute their thoughts about the play and the political movements around the world. There were participants from Poland, Argentina, and the Netherlands, as well as people from all over the United States. It ended with a final uplifting song from the Chorus/Choir.
I am a great fan of Greek drama and if you are, “Antigone in Ferguson” will not disappoint you. If you have never even read a Greek play, this one is done in fairly modern vernacular and is easy to follow. (It might help to know the characters by reading about Oedipus and Antigone beforehand, but not necessary.) Most of the panel members and Zoomers had not read “Antigone,” but had no trouble following the storyline and understanding the meaning of the ancient Greek playwright. I appreciated the modernization of the Chorus, which usually links scenes in Greek drama, and that it was musical. Many feel that the Chorus probably was sung during the original staging thousands of years ago. If you get a chance to catch a performance, you will be glad you did. It will make you realize how, through the centuries, the human condition has not changed very much, whether it is politics or plagues.
(Note: Unfortunately, due to a technical glitch, the second scene between Antigone and Ismene was not shown.)
The show will resume touring after theatre returns to normal. Watch for it in your area.
Running time of play: One hour
Running time of play with discussion: Two hours and 30 minutes.
To learn more about the Chosen For Change or to make a donation visit the Michael Brown Foundation.
To find more about Theater of War Productions go to their website.