In a playground in the shadow of the Howard public housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the audience for Antigone in Ferguson—a remarkable production of Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old tragedy—gave a knowing laugh at an unintentionally timely line spoken by Reg E. Cathey, one of the four main cast members, all of whom had been regulars on the HBO TV series The Wire:
“A leader is nothing without his advisors, and I will have the best!”
Cathey was portraying the new leader of his nation, King Creon. Creon had decreed that anybody burying Polynices would be put to death. He did not expect that his own niece, Antigone, would defy her king and bury her brother.
But Creon sticks to his policy, which leads not just to the death of Antigone, but of everybody and everything else that means anything to him.
“I am a foolish man…I am crushed, I have been crushed by fate,” Cathey cried out, in an anguish so convincing that I felt crushed—and I soon learned I was not alone.
There was special resonance when the tenor soloist for the “Greek chorus”—a Gospel choir—sang
Purify the city
The unholy pollution
The soloist, Duane Martin Foster, is the choir teacher at Normandy High School in Missouri. Before that he served as the speech and drama teacher at Normandy Middle School, where he taught a seventh grader named Michael Brown. On August 9, 2014, a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed Brown, then eighteen years old, setting off mass protests, and adding to the national debate about police violence against African Americans.
When Foster first taught Michael, as he recalled in a recent article, “he was extremely reserved, shielded, and at times a bit shy.” After a couple of months in the class, though, “he was up clumsily executing the choreography to Sing Sing Sing, while laughing and sweating with all the other students. He was also my Bobo in Raisin in the Sun. Michael had life! He truly had a spark!”
Foster was one of the thirty-five people in the Antigone choir, most of whom live or work in Ferguson, Missouri, and had traveled to Brooklyn to give this performance on a summer Saturday evening, three years after Michael Brown’s death. They had first come together as a choir to perform in Antigone in Ferguson, in Ferguson last September.
The choice to perform Antigone in the auditorium of Normandy High School made sense to those who put it together for three reasons. After Brown was killed, his body lay on the summer street for some four hours, a fact that especially outraged the protesters—just as Antigone, who was herself a teenager, was outraged that her brother’s body was left to rot unburied.
Then, the people who mourned Michael Brown saw the police shooting as an abuse of state power, just as Antigone viewed Creon as marshalling the law against a higher moral code of basic human decency. But for Bryan Doerries, the most important reason was not as obvious: “In all Sophocles’s plays, all the characters think they’re right.”
Doerries is the Artistic Director of Theater of War Productions, a theatre company he launched eight years ago to use plays—primarily the Ancient Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus—to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence. His first audiences were entirely soldiers and military veterans. As he writes in his 2015 book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, Greek drama functioned as a form of “communal therapy” for combat veterans by combat veterans. “Sophocles himself was a general…The violence in Greek tragedies is about helping the community come to terms with the violence they’ve experienced, and the violence they’ve perpetuated.”
Modern American violence and trauma extend far beyond military battlefields, and Doerries’ company has expanded both its audiences and its repertoire. Theater of War Productions uses some twenty plays, including modern tragedies by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, to help heal audiences made up of drug addicts or terminally ill patients and the health professionals who care for them; survivors of domestic violence or victims of torture; and communities destroyed by natural catastrophes or torn apart by man-made crises. Thanks to Doerries’ appointment in March of this year as New York City’s Public Artists in Residence (referred to as PAIR), Theater of War Productions will be presenting their shows for free over the next two years in more than sixty venues throughout the city (at the end of this month at the Tillary Street Woman's Shelter).
Doerries had brought Prometheus in Prison to the Missouri Department of Corrections in 2009, and The Book of Job to a mega-church in Joplin, Missouri, in 2012, on the first anniversary of the tornado that destroyed the town. So Missouri state officials were familiar with Theater of War’s use of dramas to bring people together. Someone from the governor’s office gave Doerries a call. He decided on the abridged translation of Antigone he had created in 2000 (so Creon’s line about hiring “the best” was written well before there was a President Trump.) But the old translation had omitted the Greek chorus. Doerries added those lines, and enlisted Phil Woodmore to set them to music, and to put together a choir to sing them. Woodmore, a native of St. Louis who once taught choir at Ferguson Middle School and who directs the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department Choir, assembled a disparate group of local activists, educators, and police officers, mostly strangers to one another, united by their love of music and their desire to do something for the community.
After performing in Michael Brown’s high school and a local church in Ferguson, Antigone in Ferguson went on tour. They performed as part of an Antigone festival at the Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan; then went to Baltimore; then Athens, Greece, before setting up at the basketball court in Brownsville. They worked to make sure that there were people touched by violence in the audiences in St. Louis (which has the highest homicide rate of any city in America), Baltimore (the second highest) and Brownsville, which has one of the highest homicide rates of any neighborhood in New York City—five times the (relatively low) homicide rate of New York City overall.
“That’s what happens when you put 20,000 people in a two-block radius, and they are all looking for the same jobs,” says Anthony Newerls. “That is what I call the systematic structure for violence in Brownsville.” Newerls works as program manager for CAMBA’s “Brownsville In Violence Out,” a program to prevent gun violence; and he volunteers as the president of the 73rd Police Precinct Community Council, serving as liaison between the police and the community of Brownsville. He was also in the audience at the Howard Houses basketball court for Antigone in Ferguson. “I was impressed with the size of the crowd”—about a thousand people, according to the Theater of War Productions estimate. “I have never seen a crowd like that in my community.” Newerls was disappointed that the crowd did not include more of the “target population” for violence prevention—sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds—some of whom were playing basketball in a nearby court. (“I would have shut that down.”) Still, “it was a beautiful experience. The gospel was awesome, especially for people who don’t go to church the way I do.”
Theater of War Productions was founded on the belief that public discussion after the play is integral—central!—to the experience. So after the play, members of the audience were encouraged to take the microphone.
I’ve read and seen Antigone a number times; I hesitate to confess that I even played Creon as a teenager at a summer theatre. But listening to the reactions to Antigone in Ferguson gave me a new understanding of the tragedy.
A librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, co-producer of the event, focused on Antigone: “It is only through Antigone's act of defiant love that change and revolution come about,” she said, and added that “through such acts of love by community members organizing,” change can come to Brownsville.
The perception of Antigone as revolutionary heroine is the usual take on Sophocles’s play, but another theatregoer said:
“I was surprised that I felt bad for Creon. As a schoolteacher, I know how important it is to try to calm things down. That’s what he was trying to do. Clearly, he was doing it in the wrong way.”
Similarly, after an early performance in Missouri, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP stood up and defended Creon. The play is as much about an untested leader trying to hold together the fraying social order after a devastating civil war. And the other characters in the play—Creon’s son, Antigone’s sister, the soothsayer Tiresias—also have their own perspectives. Each of them thinks they are right. Another audience member, a director of the Howard Playground, observed this and applied it to Brownsville: “As in Antigone, we have to be able to see all aspects of a conflict,” and take into account all perspectives, including both youth and law enforcement.
“Having humility,” noted a clinical psychologist, “means knowing other people have something to teach you.”
“We think it’s us versus them,” said a retired educator. “In the play, they’re all part of the same family.”
Not everybody was so conciliatory.
“Do those who enforce the law feel they’re above the law,” said a drama teacher. “The most common attitude is: ‘I am the law.’”
“I’m struck by how much fear the characters have,” said a mental health counselor.
A member of the Ocean Hill Brownsville coalition of young professionals saw a fourth connection between the conflicts in Antigone, and the ones in such communities as Ferguson and Brownsville. “We’re not allowed time to grieve and honor our dead.”
One of the teenagers in the audience said: Creon couldn’t hear his son who had sought mercy for Antigone, just like the older generation can’t listen to the younger generation, because the older generation is not comfortable with change
Throughout the performance and the discussion, a man had stayed outside the basketball court, but had climbed up on the other side of the fence and hung there, looking in. Finally, he climbed down and walked through the entrance, and took the microphone:
“I grew up in these projects, and I did twenty-one years in prison,” he said. “Unless we give the young people something constructive to do, they’re going to end up like me.”
The park had to close at dusk, allowing for less time than usual. Bryan Doerries wanted to leave the audience with the point of the project, and theatre in general: “You’re not alone across this country—and across time.”
Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.