A work of art can be thought of as confined within the space of its exhibition. The reflections gained from a piece or production of art are thus limited to the singular experience of a viewer, which is then limited by the frequency with which a viewer witnesses a piece, prior knowledge, preexisting biases and much more. Unfortunately, these limitations impede many artists and productions that present a unique vantage point on issues of racial justice, the relationship between the police and the policed and inequity in America, from reaching a larger audience. These barriers, however, are swept away in the living, breathing, moving and inspiring work that is Antigone in Ferguson.
The production encompasses a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Antigone, featuring actors including Chinasa Ogbuagu, Zach Grenier, Duane Foster, Marjolaine Goldsmith and Willie Woodmore. A dramatic vocal accompaniment by a chorus composed not just of our very own Gospel Choir and Concert Choir, but also joined by John Leggette and Samantha Madison of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD), instrumental accompaniment by Jason Davis, Ja’Mes Davis, Willie Woodmore and Bernard Long, and concluded by a discussion – moderated by director Bryan Doerries – that included panelists Juan Baena ’06, Officer Darren Derby, Michael Obasohan and Keiana West ’18. and an open mic for members of the audience to share their thoughts on the piece.
The talent brought together for the reading of Antigone was a gift to the audience. The two most powerful voices were those of Ogbuagu, as the title character of Antigone, and Grenier, as Antigone’s great-uncle, Creon. These two characters clash in the Thebes of Ancient Greece, with Antigone wishing to bury the body of her brother, Polyneices, who died trying to conquer the city of Thebes. The new king Creon, the brother and successor to the throne of Antigone’s father, the recently deceased and shamed Oedipus, bans the body of Polyneices from receiving a proper burial. Antigone disobeys Creon and buries her brother, but is sentenced to death by Creon. Unwavering, Antigone never regrets her decision and even challenges Creon’s authority by asking whether the laws of man are higher than those of the gods.
The overwhelming pathos coming from the chorus complements the moral and intellectual conflicts formed by the reading. Just as how Greek tragedy utilized a chorus as a background for the action of the play, so does Antigone in Ferguson, but the music its chorus sings (composed by Phil Woodmore) is a celebration of gospel music, a further translation of the original work into an American context.
With these elements in mind, Antigone in Ferguson builds a platform for the audience and members of the performance to understand the complexities of the various perspectives and opinions tied to the death of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer – and the many following shootings of unarmed individuals of color by armed police officers in the country.
Antigone’s impassioned belief that she must bury her brother because it is the law of the gods and the moral thing to do contrasts with Creon’s own belief that firm law preserves a safe society. Both believe they’re right and do not consider the viewpoint of the other. This intensity in believing they are doing the right thing leads to their own tragic ends and pushes Thebes into chaos.
The fact that members of the SLMPD and leaders of the movement that seeks a greater justice for the death of Michael Brown have come together to make this production happen underlines its importance. Keeping in mind that Thebes has been plunged into disaster by Antigone and Creon not being able to reconcile, these members of the St. Louis and Ferguson community come together knowing that, to prevent any more deaths, the authorities and the community itself will have to cooperate, live and sing together.
What results is a space for continuous healing and reflection. The conversations between the actors, members of the chorus and panel participants during and after rehearsals are all part of this purpose. The actual play is just a starting point for a conversation, and what grows out is an entirely new community made each time Antigone in Ferguson performs at a different location.
Thus, Antigone in Ferguson aims for a type of healing that does not focus solely on the Ferguson community, but which, as the selection of panelists that spoke post-play shows, also fosters difficult conversations and healing in our very own community of the Berkshires. Because, as Doerries remarked, this work “ends [when] the last thoughts and changes, that come much after, end.”
‘Antigone in Ferguson,’ which premiered on Saturday at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, is a moving play that speaks to injustice in America. Photo courtesy of Carrie Zukoski.