Szuhaj: On "Antigone in Ferguson"

Weighing in as an outsider on an incredibly sensitive topic.

by Ben Szuhaj | 9/19/17 1:30am

After seeing “Antigone in Ferguson” on Friday night, I did not leave necessarily with mixed emotions but rather with numerous discrete, difficult-to-handle thoughts, ideas and feelings. The show itself — a modern reading of the eons-old Greek tragedy “Antigone,” interspersed and complemented by song — was spectacular, raw, powerful, vulnerable, thought-provoking, discomforting and (by design) cathartic. The parallels between “Antigone,” which tells the story of the young title character and her quest to bury her dead brother Polyneices after he is deemed an enemy of the State and left to rot in the streets; and the story of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and whose body was left uncovered in the streets for four hours, were clear. Even so, the cast of “Antigone in Ferguson,” which included established actors Tracie Thoms and Zach Grenier, as well as equally talented performers who were closer to the tragedy in Ferguson — two of Michael Brown’s teachers and multiple members of the Ferguson police force — did not explicitly equate Michael Brown with Polyneices. Rather, it seemed the intent was, as Bryan Doerries, the artistic director of the production, put it in an interview with The Dartmouth, “to set up the conditions for a conversation in which people will interrogate what the word ‘Ferguson’ means to them.”

“Antigone in Ferguson” did just that. The in-house discussion which took place afterward stretched well beyond the scheduled end of the night’s events. It was equally as spectacular, raw, powerful, vulnerable, thought-provoking, discomforting and cathartic as the play itself. Four community members — including a student, a faculty member and a Safety and Security official — bravely took the stage and shared their reactions to the performance.

By the end of the night, the mission of Theater of War Productions, which is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” was accomplished. Many people found comfort in the restorative message of the performance’s final song, “I’m Covered,” which included the memorable, repetitious phrase “Thank God I’m covered!” To some, being covered meant being protected by the blood of Christ. To others, it meant being covered by family and friends, having people who have your back. To others still, it meant a literal protective covering, such as the bulletproof vests worn by police.

Regardless of personal interpretation, “I’m Covered” was meant to help comfort the afflicted. For me, it was a beautiful song, but afterwards, when listening to the reflections of members of the audience who spoke directly to the pain, complexity and burden of racial injustice and police violence, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like a voyeur. There I was, a white male of privilege, one of the “comfortable,” a person who has never felt threatened by the police or has had his body regarded unjustly as a weapon, listening to the voices of people of color, listening to their strife and suffering. The messages afflicted me: I felt anger, sorrow, a desire for justice. At the same time, I knew that I could never truly understand what it means to be Black in America.

To paraphrase one audience member, black suffering has become so mainstream it’s almost like smut-porn. You can scroll through Twitter and see pictures of black bodies mutilated. The statement only made me feel more unsure of my role, of being in the theater in the first place. Of course, viewing images of mutilated black bodies is a completely different engagement with the problem of racial injustice than listening to the stories of Dartmouth community members and residents of Ferguson. Yet both provide exposure to the suffering caused by a problem of which I have the privilege of ignoring. I get to go home white. I don’t have to worry about being stopped and frisked. I have the daily privilege of being unaware of the police and of the police being unaware of me. I have never felt the pain of losing a father, brother, sister, mother or friend to one “bad” cop.

I wanted to help, but I was (and still am) afraid of overstepping my racial bounds, of appropriating somebody else’s voice, story, cause. The American criminal justice system disproportionally benefits people with the color of my skin and discriminates, perniciously and at times flagrantly, against people with skin darker than mine. This is evident and must change. But just saying so feels woefully insufficient.

This is one of the fundamental problems keeping comfortable people from truly and meaningfully supporting causes of social justice: It’s all too easy to simply say that you care, that you’re not racist, that police need to stop murdering people of color then slip back into your life of comfort and have the privilege of ignoring the issue. The paradox of this article is that, as someone who lives comfortably within the current system, I am entering into the dialogue on a seemingly superficial level and showing support for a cause without doing the legwork necessary to actually affect change.

I could continue to flush out the difficulties, pitfalls and sticking points endemic to engaging in dialogues about racial injustice as a white person, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to put it as plainly as possible: If you are comfortable within a system of injustice — perhaps you are even unaware of the injustice until somebody points it out to you — stop and ask yourself, “why am I comfortable? What advantages do I have? Is there any way I can help?” And once you have asked yourself those questions, open your ears and your heart to other people’s stories. Do not deny their experiences. Do not become defensive. Listen. Empathize. Understand. And once you have done that, actually put something at risk. Do not simply say you support a cause like Black Lives Matter. Join a protest. Sign a petition. Call your government officials. Do not boast about doing so. Do not expect a pat on the back. Do not expect to understand fully the experiences of those who have lost a loved one to the police, who live in constant awareness of the police, who have bodies more often subjected to violence than yours. But try to come close. Please try.