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At the Hop, Greek Theater Addresses Ferguson

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Singers in Antigone in Ferguson - COURTESY OF THEATER OF WAR PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy of Theater of War Productions
  • Singers in Antigone in Ferguson

The Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College opens its new performing arts season with an ancient Greek tragedy. Theater of War Productions presents Antigone in Ferguson, a staged reading of Sophocles' Antigone that was first performed in Ferguson, Mo. It's a traditional rendering of the play with one notable exception: The performers collaborated with St. Louis Community Gospel Choir director Phil Woodmore, who composed original music to accompany the piece. The choir functions as the Greek chorus; in Hanover, the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir joins the Phil Woodmore Singers.

The 2014 shooting of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, exacerbated racial divides and left the town of Ferguson experiencing a collective trauma. There were protests, riots and endless news coverage. Spectacular headlines and talking heads compelled the nation to pick a side: community or law enforcement. Meanwhile, residents of the St. Louis suburb grappled with their city's new role as a center of the modern-day civil rights movement.

It was during this time that Brooklyn-based Theater of War Productions was asked to do a play in Ferguson. Company cofounder Bryan Doerries had his reservations.

His company is best known for its eponymous "Theater of War" project, which presents staged readings of Greek plays to military members, veterans and their communities. To Doerries, Greek theater is "a technology as refined as the iPhone. When plugged into the right audience, the empathy created is astounding."

But the tensions in Ferguson were so high that he was hesitant to take on the project. "We've performed our work in super-max prisons, Gitmo [Guantanamo Bay detention camp], in Japan for Fukushima survivors," Doerries said in a phone interview, "but trying to filter the conversation about community-police relations at that moment seemed really intimidating."

About a year and a half after the shooting, Doerries finally decided to go to Ferguson with a staged reading of Antigone. It was performed at Brown's high school.

Theater of War Productions has a Midas touch when it comes to bringing works of classic Greek theater to life. Doerries does the translation, which keeps the language accessible without altering the spirit of the play. He emphasized, "We don't do concept shows. We let the Greek plays speak for themselves."

The company claims a network of more than 200 notable actors, including some Hollywood stars. The cast in Hanover features Tracie Thoms, Zach Grenier, Duane Foster, Marjolaine Goldsmith and Willie Woodmore. Doerries described the collective as "committed to the radical idea that the audience knows more than we do about the text."

He continued, "If I had two lives to live, I would live fully in the first life and study the Greeks in the second. The prerequisite for knowing antiquity is having lived the extremities of life."

That life experience is crucial to what Doerries called the most important part of the production: the post-show discussion. It's not your average talkback with variations on the question "How did you memorize all those lines?" Theater of War's actors are not allowed to discuss their process at all. Rather, Doerries specifically invites "representatives from different walks of life, who are asked to respond to what they have just seen or heard," as a way of guiding the discussion with the general public.

There is much to respond to in Antigone in Ferguson, especially given the presence of gospel music, which Doerries described as "moving, virtuosic and sacred." It's what makes Antigone in Ferguson a unique production. "To me, what's inspirational about the project is how the people of Ferguson really own it," Doerries said.

Indeed, the city has imprinted itself on the show. One member of the choir, who was Brown's middle school teacher, sings alongside a lieutenant in the police force. "It's a vehicle for them to express something that they need to say to one another," Doerries said.

He was quick to point out that the story of Ferguson has come to stand for debates over police and community relations throughout the nation, "especially in a state that runs as deep red as New Hampshire can," Doerries said. Referring to this summer's white supremacist demonstration in Virginia, he added, "Charlottesville is a rural, almost bucolic town. There is no place in America where this conversation doesn't need to happen."

To be sure, most people in the country have already talked about what happened in Ferguson — and other cities where black citizens have died at the hands of white police. But Doerries argued that these conversations have rarely been productive, making efforts such as Antigone in Ferguson crucial. "Theater cannot be scaled up to be the answer to Twitter," he said, "but it's the answer to Twitter."

Doerries further suggested that Greek theater is particularly useful to achieve his goal of genuine conversation. "Because the plays were written 2,500 years ago, we can relate to these ideas of authority and breaching authority and abuse of power without anyone feeling accused," he said. "The play still triggers genuine feelings in all of us. Suffering has the power to democratize. When we share an experience of suffering," Doerries concluded, "then we can talk."


The original print version of this article was headlined "A Star-Studded 'Antigone' Comes to Hanover via Ferguson"

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