Michael Brown and the Raw Power of ‘Antigone in Ferguson’
‘Antigone in Ferguson’ distills the Greek tragedy as a commentary on the urgent questions—including around police brutality and racism—resulting from the death of Michael Brown.
At one point seated, facing the audience at Harlem Stage, Michael Brown Sr. rubbed his eyes and it looked like he was rubbing his eyes hard. He may have just been tired. But at that moment, facing us, speaking as part of a panel, he also seemed spent. Done.
During the 60-plus minutes of Antigone In Ferguson, this critic marveled that he could bear to be there at all. But his life now is in campaigning service to the memory and legacy of his son, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Brown Sr. was here to watch a performance of the Theater of War production, which is a distillation of Sophocles’ Antigone as recited by actors, accompanied by beautiful music (by Phil Woodmore) and singing by a choir made up of police, social workers, activists and concerned youth from Ferguson and New York City.
Afterwards, there was a panel and audience discussion touching on all the issues Brown’s death and subsequent unrest raised: police brutality and racism, black disenfranchisement, community strengthening, grief, and pain. Antigone in Ferguson was premiered at Normandy High School, Michael Brown’s alma mater, in September 2016.
This is as much a collective discussion as it is piece of theatre, and the night this critic attended the words of those who contributed to the discussion were every bit as powerful as those spoken by Tamara Tunie (Antigone), Tate Donovan (Creon), Chris Myers (Haemon, the king’s son, Guard, Messenger), and Chinasa Obguagu (Ismene, Antigone’s sister).
On different nights, you may see actors including Samira Wiley, Nilaja Sun, Ato Blankson-Wood, Chris Noth, Chinaza Uche, Frankie Faison, and Kathryn Erbe in the four roles.
Fifteen minutes before they started speaking, the choir started singing. Their voices rang with astonishing, feeling precision.
Next, Bryan Doerries, the artistic director of Theater of War who translated Sophocles' text and directed the production, told us what shape the evening would take and what had inspired it. He also told us that, at this intense evening’s end, there would be cookies in the foyer.
Antigone, the 2500-year-old text, was compressed into an hour. Tunie played the titled character, making clear her strong sense of duty and determination to bury the body of her brother Polyneices, who has been killed in a recent civil war.
This is squarely against the desires of Creon (Donovan), the ruler of Thebes, who insists to bury Polyneices would be to defy the law, and anyone who does will be killed. In the most vicious and un-leaderly way possible, Creon seeks to exert his own control, and Donovan animates him with a bitter sociopathic sneer.
Myers and Obguagu’s characters are stuck between them, with instincts to defer to authority and to do the right thing. The choir, under the direction of Phil Woodmore, acts as a literal Greek chorus, responding as citizens of Thebes to Creon’s prompts and then voicing their opposition leading him to do the right thing, but only after wrongdoing piles upon tragedy.
Willie Woodmore (Phil's father), who plays guitar as part of the orchestra, supplied a standout performance as Tiresias, the blind seer who tries to make Creon see the many personal and moral errors of his ways.
As the program states, “At its core, Antigone is a play about what happens when personal conviction and state law clash, raising the question: When everyone is right (or feels justified), how do we avert the violence that will inevitably take place.”
The performance took place a few weeks after St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch—the Ferguson prosecutor who refused to convict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown Jr.—was voted out of office.
The discussion after the performance matched the passion of Sophocles' text, as speakers spoke about real-world issues, and also what the text had meant to them. Antigone was a woman of honor, speakers said, defying Creon, the personification of oppression and abusive power. One speaker said Creon had the same bearing and arrogance of President Trump.
Brown Sr. spoke briefly about how his son’s name had been misused after his death; how he tried to ignore the internet trolls.
Activists from Man Up, a community-based organization that helps young black men, spoke about the work they do. But their work and the work of other campaigners is complicated and undermined by some of the actions of police, not least (and this point was made more than once) the presence of white police officers in black communities who don’t live there and do not, cannot, understand the populations they serve.
One of the choir singers, Lieutenant Latricia Allen, who was called into Ferguson in the wake of the unrest, spoke about being a rare black face in a predominantly white force, and what it was like to be a black police officer. The discussion, featuring a range of black voices and experiences, was passionate.
The unifying desire was for radical change, not just when it came to the behavior of police in the communities they should be serving fairly and justly, but also when it came to the violence occurring within communities. One speaker said there were centuries of black pain to contend with before a meaningful corner could be turned. A photographer, Erica Wright, talked about the many images she had taken at the time of the unrest.
More than one speaker turned to Brown Sr. to pass on their condolences, to say they had demonstrated and campaigned in the wake of his son's death, and to signal their determination that action and good could, should, and must come from it.
The varying tones of this powerful and stirring discussion matched the tones of Antigone: anger, despair, determination, hope, defiance, a sense of justice defiled and reaffirmed. A poet spoke about not being able to watch the news sometimes, and spoke about her art and using the power of creation, her own words, as the most positive instruments of change.
A similar impulse is at the heart of Antigone In Ferguson: this is a work of art that meets reality head-on. It is a piece of theatre, but more than that an act of remembrance and interrogation, a mirror across thousands of years between fiction and reality, a discussion, and a truth-telling. It is not an act of reconciliation, but a wrestling, a confrontation, between tragedy and understanding. And that cookie at the end was delicious.
Antigone In Ferguson is at Harlem Stage, until October 13. Book here.