The first thing to understand about Antigone in Ferguson, the momentous touring production of Greek drama intertwined with modern tragedy, is that it is not “theater” in any conventional sense of the word. Its beginning and end do not depend on the opening and closing of a curtain – not in a literal way, and certainly not in a figurative way, either. When you climb up the stone tower of the Harlem Stage and into the theater, the choir is already alive in media res, filling the room with spiritual song. And by the time you leave, you’ll have found yourself carrying on an active conversation that is one of the most urgent and upsetting ones haunting our nation.
The name “Ferguson,” in contemporary America, arguably carries as much weight as does the tragedy Antigone. Antigone in Ferguson was created in 2016, born out of the loss and pain that followed the death of 18-year old Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer. The show, in many ways, is a memorial to Michael Brown. But in its poignancy, Antigone in Ferguson – named for the suburb of St. Louis in which Brown was shot – speaks also to the loss and pain that accompany every unjust death, every inequality of today’s America.
From the moment that you enter into the high-ceilinged chamber of the theater, you are floored by the power of the gospel choir. They are a very literal interpretation of a Greek chorus, and by far the strongest presence on stage. One of the greatest triumphs of this production is the moving musical composition by Phil Woodmore of Sophocles’ Chorus into beautiful songs that not only fill in the gaps of the story, but flood the room with an emotional surge that couldn’t have been achieved with words alone. Unlike their Greek predecessors, they are not faceless, however. In fact, before the play begins, the names, faces, and origins of each choir member flash in a slideshow above the stage, giving each singer an individuality that carries over into the show. We are even told that several of them were teachers of Michael Brown’s. The roots of the choir – and everyone involved in the production – reach deep into Ferguson, Missouri, as well as in Harlem or Brooklyn or the Bronx and all over the country. The show is not just a labor of art, but a labor of love, and a push for justice.
This Antigone is more of a stage reading than a play. But stripped of all spectacle and visual aesthetic, is powerful in a simple way that is often overshadowed larger productions. With a cast of four reading from scripts, there is little to distract from the words themselves, and the emotions they conjure. In this five-week run, each week the cast is refreshed – so the actors (all of them recognizable from television or film) approach the roles with relatively little rehearsal. But this, it seems, does not take away from their impact in their roles. Antigone herself – the incarnation that I saw – speaks with a steady, confident voice, radiating power and royalty even in her stance as an enemy of the state. She is quieter, cooler than many interpretations, but it is this which gives her strength.
The whole cast is impressive, especially considering the format of the play. And the choir is what makes this show truly special – they transcend and reinvent the words of Sophocles to encapsulate a new tragedy, a new generational sadness, and they will more often than not leave you with goosebumps. But afterwards, the audience is invited to engage in a conversation with the cast, creatives, and more people attached to the project – a conversation that takes up more of the evening’s time and emotional strength than the play itself. It is then, listening to the voices of others, that you understand how Antigone in Ferguson will move you, cut you deep, and make you think in ways you never imagined a 2,500-year old play could.
- By Sophocles
- Translated and directed by Bryan Doerries
- Music composed by Phil Woodmore
- Cast includes: Tamara Tunie, Adepero Oduye, Samira Wiley, Nilaja Sun, Elsa Davis
- Harlem Stage, New York City
- Until 13 October 2018
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