On April 27, 2021, the Theater of War Productions presented “The Oedipus Project: Nobel Prize Summit Our Planet, Our Future.” The first part of the presentation was a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” or “Oedipus Rex” translated, directed, and facilitated by Bryan Doerries. Theater of War Productions mission is to “presents readings of ancient and modern plays to spark discussion about a variety of social justice and public health issues.”
“Oedipus the King” was written approximately 2,500 years ago. Greek drama was at its peak, and Sophocles was one of the most memorable dramatists of his time. It was written around the time Athens was in the midst of a plague that would kill one third of its citizens. It is no wonder the play resonates today in its depiction of leaders who lie and deceive their followers and themselves. It spotlights truth-sayers whose warnings are not believed and focuses on how blindness to truth is the real lose of sight, and not the physical loss of vision. Doerries likes this explanation of the play, “It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”
if you never heard of the protagonist of this story, you know that Oedipus (Corey Hawkins) unknowingly kills his father, Laius, the King of Thebes, and marries his mother, Jocasta (Frances McDormand). This was predicted in a prophesy that most of the main characters thought they had avoided. The plot begins as Thebes is dealing with its own plague. To end the plague, the murderer of Laius must be found and punished. In his quest to find this criminal, Oedipus calls Tiresias (Jeffrey Wright), the prophet. Tiresias hints to Oedipus the truth of his personal history and the undeniable facts are revealed. Oedipus finds out he killed Laius, not realizing he was the king and that Laius and Jocasta decided to sacrifice their child to avoid the prediction that their son would be the cause of their deaths. He discovers that the people who raised him in Corinth were not his biological parents. He is the son Jocasta and Laius sent to be killed but saved by a Shepherd who could not do the deed. Oedipus cannot deal with these horrible revelations and gouges out his eyes.
The play was written around the time Athens was in the midst of a plague that would kill one third of its citizens. It is no wonder the play resonates today in its depiction of leaders who lie and deceive their followers and themselves.
The cast is every director’s dream. Corey Hawkins (“Straigt Outta Compton,” “Black Klansman”) is a magnificent Oedipus. He is strong and self-assured at the beginning, but broken by the end. Although this is considered a reading, Hawkins’ eyes and facial expression are mesmerizing. When Oedipus gouges out his eyes, we only hear his voice. After Oedipus maims himself, Hawkins blackens his eyes.
Just two days from receiving her third Academy Award for Best Actress (“Nomadland”), Frances McDormand performs as Jocasta. She brings life to this ancient queen who at first is a peacemaker for her husband and brother and then the desperate mother and wife who begs Oedipus not to pursue the truth.
Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”) is Tiresias. His wonderful voice as the seer makes us shudder in fear from his prophesies but still admire the man.
Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) plays Creon, Oedipus’ righthand man. Creon is Jocasta’s brother and warns Oedipus not to believe the rumors that he, Creon, is trying to overthrow Oedipus’ government. Murray plays him as an ordinary man who has enjoyed his power up until now.
Academy Award nominee, David Strathairn (“Good Night and Good Luck”) is Messenger 1 who brings news of Oedipus’ adopted father’s death and also is one of the keys to the truth. Again, he brings so much to this supporting role, as does Frankie Faison (“The Wire”) as the Shepherd who saved Jocasta’s doomed babe. The scene of this kindly old man being tortured to get him to admit the truth makes you shiver.
Rounding out the cast are Jumaane Williams as Messenger 2 (New York City Public Advocate) and Marjolaine Goldsmith as the Priest (Company Manager of Theater of War Productions). They do not lose any ground to the “stars” in the production. Holding their own as the Chorus are Nobel Prize-winning Scientists, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Harold Varmus.
After the show, there were five panelists who discussed the play and advocated for ecology. They included, Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate justice advocate; DJ Saravese, poet, activist and optimist; Laura Verónica Muñoz, climate activist, ecofeminist from Columbia; Julialynn Walker, food justice advocate; and Tim Norris, Ohio farmer.
Finally, there was a discussion including the panelists and director with viewers from all over the world who asked questions about the play and climate change.
Support for the digital programming was provide, in part, by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Ongoing support has also been provided by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a partner with Theatre of War Foundation for more than 10 years.
The Nobel Foundation hosted, and it was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in partnership with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Stockholm Resilience Centre/Beijer Institute.
Running time: One hour and 20 minutes plus panel discussion and question time. Total time two hours and 50 minutes.
Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” takes up where “Oedipus the King” left off. It will be Theater of War Productions’ next offering on May 6, 2021 at 7:30 pm, offering insights about elder care, homelessness, and immigration. Following that, there will be a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ “Philotetes” and “Women of Trachis” which will focus on the impact of Covid-19.
To find out more about these productions and information on Theater of War Productions, go to their website.