‘Antigone in Ferguson’: A Modern Tragedy Is Now a Greek Tragedy

The death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager who was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, informs ‘Antigone in Ferguson,’ which will be performed in Brooklyn.

Courtesy Matthew Septimus/Theater of War

A body, killed dead by the state, lies unburied in full public view. The authorities say that the corpse deserves to be punished, that the body is that of an invader’s, someone who is a danger and a threat to the community. Chaos ensues, as the community grapples with notions of justice and fairness.

This is the brief story of Antigone. And it is the story of Michael Brown, too, the unarmed African-American teenager who was shot by police on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, setting off days of clashes between protesters and police.

These two stories will overlap Saturday night in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, as the four members from the cast of The WireReg E. Cathey, Sonja Sohn, Deirdre Lovejoy, and Frankie Faison, along with a St. Louis-area gospel choir filling in as the Greek chorus—perform sections of Antigone on a playground blacktop next to a branch of the Brooklyn library.

Think of it not so much as a play but as a party. The performance is free, barbecue will be served, and the actors hope that kids on the playground and adults in the public housing that towers over the stage will be coaxed out of their evening plans to check out some of the action.

The extent to which a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy can speak to the tragedies of our moment is the question that Bryan Doerries has made his life’s work.

Doerries is the artistic director of Theater of War, a decade-old theater company that aims to do nothing less than take classical theater out of the overpriced and musty confines of the black box theater and into the places where people who have undergone trauma live.

The hope is that ancient history can heal. After each performance, members of the local community come on stage to lead discussions about what they have just seen.

“People attend the theater these days to be made to feel more intelligent than they actually are,” Doerries said. “It’s a late capitalist phenomenon for a very rarefied group of people. Our mission is to reframe the question to, ‘Whose stories are these? Who has a proprietary right to be talking about them?’ The fundamental value of our work is that audiences who have lived the extremities described in these plays have more to teach us than we have to teach them.”

Theater of War got its start from a $3.6 million contract from the Department of Defense to perform two plays by Sophocles on military bases for soldiers home from the conflicts overseas. They did Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in prison, Sophocles’ The Trachiniae in hospice care, and the “Book of Job” in a Missouri megachurch after the Joplin tornado and in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Antigone in Ferguson wasn’t Doerries’ brainchild; rather after Brown was killed, the pastor of his church reached out and asked simply if Doerries had a play for them.

Despite performances at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and in the aftermath of a nuclear power disaster, Doerries stalled on bringing Theater of War to Ferguson. “Being a white man from Brooklyn, coming from a privileged position, this just felt like a leap too far. I was intimidated.”

After hedging for a year and half, he eventually settled on doing Antigone at a megachurch near Ferguson.

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Antigone is about a clash between personal conviction and state power and law. There is a body that is left above the ground for several days. When I started talking to people, it wasn’t the shooting that got them out of their house and into the streets.

“It was the desecration of Mike Brown’s body for four and a half hours. It felt close enough without being the same,” Doerries said. “Greek tragedy is about people all believing they are right, fighting for what they believe in, and someone is going to die. To me that characterizes where we are right now.”

The Brownsville performance will be the group’s most freewheeling yet, one fully in the open, without a stage or theater seating. It is part of a 2015 initiative from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs called Public Artists in Residence.

It is a program that draws its inspiration from Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a conceptual artist who had a decade-long residency with the city’s Department of Sanitation, and recently, her own solo show at the Queens Museum.

Besides Theater of War, the program has brought the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera into work with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs on a project called CycleNews that involves immigrant women cycling through their neighborhoods with handcrafted pamphlets letting residents know of services available to them, and taking the residents’ concerns back to governmental agencies.

It also brought artist Mary Miss to work alongside the city’s Department of Design and Construction on a project that gets artists to collaborate further on city planning projects.

“It’s about bringing the creativity of artists into the public sector to see how these artists can be problem solvers and creatively envision different ways of looking at some of the issues we face,” said Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of cultural affairs. “There is something an artist can do that is like therapy without calling it therapy. It has a different angle on it.”

Antigone in Ferguson is also part of an initiative by the Brooklyn Public Library to expand its program beyond the walls of the library. In 2015, the library hired László Jakab Orsós, then the director of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, as vice president of arts and culture. Orsós traveled to Greece last month with Doerries, and decided to bring the production to the Brownsville library.

“This is what libraries should do now,” he said in an interview. “Libraries are home to narratives. Here we are revisiting the narrative, the text, and then using that text to galvanize a crowd, to debate and discuss uncomfortable issues. This can’t just be a place where you borrow a book and then bring it back.”

Antigone in Ferguson can make audiences uncomfortable. Doerries chose as the choir that serves as the Greek chorus a local gospel choir and the St. Louis Police Choir, which means a sizable contingent of law enforcement are often in the audience. The post-show community discussion can often go on longer than the play itself.

“I don’t think any of us are unaware of the stakes of saying these words in front of these audiences and having this conversation,” said Doerries. “Theater is about boundaries dissolving, between you and I, across time. It voids hierarchies. And the primary tool we have is shared discomfort.

“If you have felt any of these emotions, you are not alone across the spectrum of humanity, and you are not alone across time,” he added. “It’s about bringing communities together, raising awareness in order to together face some of the darkest aspects of humanity as a community. This restores what was the original purpose of theater.”

The discomfort that Theater of War productions can bring, and that could be on display Saturday night, can be palpable. Duane Foster is a member of the choir who had an earlier career performing in Broadway musicals. He returned to Ferguson a decade ago to teach music. Michael Brown was one of his students. He describes an environment where, when summer vacation rolls around, “You don’t know if you will ever see your students alive again.”

“After a recent performance of Antigone in Ferguson one woman stood up in the audience beside herself with grief,” he recounted.

“I just don’t know what to do any more,” she cried. “No one hears my voice.”

“And we told her,” Foster recounted, “‘we hear your voice now. This is when you get to speak.’”

Antigone in Ferguson will be performed at the Howard Playground, Brooklyn, New York, on July 15, at 7 p.m. Free admission.