"Antigone in Ferguson" stirs up hope amidst gloom and doom
WILLIAMSTOWN — The 12th annual CenterSeries lineup at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College opens Saturday with a tragedy for the times, "Antigone in Ferguson." Backed by the force of a gospel choir from Ferguson, Mo., it's promising to be an immersive and transformative presentation aligned with an equally transformative and thought-challenging public performance series.
As gloom and doom as it may seem, there's something that's compelled audiences to be there, as the one-night-only performance has sold out.
Over the years, CenterSeries has upturned the gamut of social issues, from gender to geopolitics, through theatrical and dance performances, talks and workshops. This latest collaborative performance and public discussion brings back to the Williams College campus New York City-based Theater of War Productions, who did work relative to veterans issues with classes back in the spring. The company's hallmark is re-presenting Sophocles' Greek tragedies to a modern audience through dramatic readings designed to segue directly into community conversations between audiences and production members.
Rachel Chanoff, director of programming for the CenterSeries, said that "Antigone in Ferguson" is a timely and relevant production to launch this year's series theme of "social engagement."
"Right now," she said, "we're in such precarious times that anyone who has a platform that can become a part of the engaged conversation needs to use that platform to move the ball forward. "Everything we present in this series, we want to have meaningful impact, not just social justice but civic dialogue. We want the '62 Center to be a platform for conversations."
Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Theater of War Productions, and New York's current Public Artist in Residence (PAIR), directs "Antigone in Ferguson." For the past decade, his company's work has addressed complex and sensitive issues ranging from end-of-life care to substance abuse and prison reform.
"But I hadn't addressed race in any way," he said.
He admitted he was hesitant, as a white male, to go into a predominantly black community, to present Greek tragedy as it related to the crises in Ferguson, but Doerries let the community guide him to what was right and what was needed, and the choir and company actors especially took great ownership in the project. They've since toured dozens and dozens of venues, from Ferguson churches to historically black colleges, to theaters in Athens, Greece and now academic institutions throughout the Northeast.
In a phone interview from Brooklyn, he said that, "Almost any Greek tragedy could speak to the issues that happened in Ferguson," from issues with class, violence and distrust of law. But "Antigone in Ferguson," becomes an ode of sorts, conceived in response to the controversial 2014 killing of an 18-year-old African American, Michael Brown, shot multiple times by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. That day, the community lost a life, and Ferguson lost its sense of trust and connection in the community.
Though written around 440 B.C., "Antigone" is the name of the fearless female protagonist who anguished and was outraged over the deaths of her brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. The opening scene takes place just after the men have killed one another over the defense of and defiance to the laws of the time. Creon, King of Thebes, whose rule Eteocles was defending, favors that brother, laying him to rest with honors in a proper grave. But Creon forbids his constituents from burying Polyneices, a once exiled defector, under a sentence of death. Instead, Polyneices' body, "torn by dogs, still lay unpitied," and under watch of one of Creon's guards.
With "Antigone in Ferguson," there's a pronounced parallel between Polyneices body being left in the street and the body of Brown, who was shot multiple times, his corpse left in the street for four hours after his death, until a medical examiner cleared the scene.
"We're not saying Polyneices is Michael Brown, but we're showing that here's a struggle that might match the struggles happening across the country right now," Doerries said. "What the Greeks got is, if you want to have engagement on an issue, start with a portrayal of human suffering first."
For the production, Doerries expands on the concept of a commentating Greek chorus by adding a gospel choir singing arrangements composed by Phil Woodmore. Comprising police officers, educators and community members from Ferguson, the touring choir, for the '62 Center event, will be joined by members of the Williams College Music Department's Concert Choir and Gospel Choir. The cast is led by Tracie Thoms ("Rent," "Cold Case"), Zach Grenier ("Fight Club," "Deadwood"), Duane Foster (Michael Brown's middle school teacher), Marjolaine Goldsmith (Theater of War company), and Willie Woodmore (a pastor and musician).
"What draws me to [this work] is that it's not about fixing a meaning to a play, but [offering] infinite interpretations by the audience. We're trying to create a truly democratic space where all interpretations are welcome," Doerries said.
"As a cast, we're constantly [questioning] our own values and we are constantly[being] interrogated," he said.
The director noted that there have been several times where a performance has taken place in a community which experienced a shooting or other form of violence that day. It always leads to some raw and deeply informing discussions.
"We are getting an education to confront issues in communities that have truly suffered," the director said.
But, Doerries said, it's important that people feel free to speak knowing that they will be listened to.
"That's been the biggest takeaway. No matter how uncomfortable it gets, there's joy to be experienced in confronting that really uncomfortable stuff with a community in a room where we all make that commitment to do that with each other," he said.
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