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Antigone in Ferguson is playing an encore run at Brooklyn's Church of St Ann and the Holy Trinity from May 8 to July 13, 2019. The production will feature a rotating cast of actors and choirs. Tickets are free but your must RSVP online.Why Sophocles' play speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement
When Antigone in Ferguson opens this week, it will be the second Black Lives Matter-infused take on Sophocles' tragedy to play Harlem this year. But while Classical Theatre of Harlem's version was set in a politically charged dystopian future, Theater of War Productions' mounting tackles today's race problems head-on. Created in the aftermath of black teenager Michael Brown's fatal shooting by a white police officer, Antigone in Ferguson was sparked by a poignant request: "Do you have a play that can make this community heal?"
The question was posed to Theater of War's artistic director, Bryan Doerries, by members of a local church holding a memorial service in Brown's name. The parishioners knew his company addressed urgent social issues (PTSD, prison reform, domestic violence) through community-specific performances. Could he devise a show for them, too?
As a white man from Brooklyn, Doerries worried he might be too much of an outsider. But after a year of thought and research, he decided Antigone would do the trick.
Sophocles' tale about a woman desperate to bury her deceased brother against the orders of the king recalls the way Brown's body was left on the streets for hours after his death. "Sophocles was writing about the tension between the individual and the state," Doerries says. "He was writing about overreaching state power and the corrupting nature of power, as well as the desecration of a body as the central act that creates the unrest in his story."
Originally produced at Brown's Ferguson high school in 2016, Antigone in Ferguson has toured domestically and abroad, and even made a one-night stop in a Brooklyn basketball court last year. But its month-long Harlem Stage run is its longest one yet, and all the tickets are 100% free. The performance fuses dramatic readings of passages from Antigone by a roster of well-known rotating guest stars (Samira Wiley, Chris Noth, Tate Donovan, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye, Kathryn Erbe) with original gospel music by Phil Woodmore sung by a diverse choir. But while its staging is simple its goal is ambitious: to encourage conversation between people with conflicting perspectives.
The choir is made up of diverse citizens from Ferguson and NYC with different backgrounds and politics. Some are "people who knew Michael Brown, teachers, some of the policemen who were involved, school counselors, and we're augmenting that with members from our community," says Patricia Cruz, Harlem Stage's executive director.
"Choir members often come from oppositional points of view," adds Doerries. "They don't necessarily agree on many of the issues, but they made the commitment as concerned citizens to come together into a space and stay in the room even if they get uncomfortable."
Because the show isn't a polemic, Doerries realizes some audiences may balk. "In the early days of the project, people walked out," he admits. "It was an indication we were doing the right thing." This is why he likes to adapt ancient texts to talk about current issues, since "they provide enough distance to create the conditions for dialogue where the audience doesn't feel accused of anything."
One of Antigone in Ferguson's guest stars, Harlem resident Tamara Tunie, says her involvement reminds her "how art can bring change to society."
"There's nothing more gratifying than having that immediate response from the audience," she says. "I keep coming back to theatre because there is nothing more exciting than to have people join you on a journey. You make an agreement with the audience and they explore, feel and think with you."
Jose Solís is a NY-based writer and editor who's been covering theatre and film professionally since 2003. He is a member of the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: De-Rance Blaylock and choir members in Antigone in Ferguson. Photos by Gregg Richards.
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