'Antigone in Ferguson': a classical reading starts conversation

Theater of War Productions will take over the Moore Theater on Sept. 15 and 16 at 8 p.m.

by Emma Guo | 9/15/17 12:15am

What does a play written 2,500 years ago and a suburb of St. Louis have in common? The upcoming Theater of War production of “Antigone in Ferguson” at the Hopkins Center for the Arts draws parallels between the events of the ancient Greek play by Sophocles and those in Ferguson, Missouri surrounding the death of Michael Brown in 2014. 

The production company will take over the Moore Theater on Sept. 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. “Rent” actress Tracie Thoms will perform the titular role, and “The Good Wife” actor Zach Grenier will take on the role of the king who raised her, Creon. Marjolaine Goldsmith and Willie Woodmore will also read, alongside Duane Foster, a native of St. Louis who will additionally lead the gospel choir-style chorus. All three frequently have appeared in Theater of War productions. 

The primary conflict of “Antigone”is centered around the treatment of the deceased body of Polyneices, the title character’s brother. Considered an enemy of the state, Polyneices’ posthumous punishment is to be left unburied on the battlefield — a great dishonor in Greek society. Antigone fights for his proper burial under the argument that an individual deserves to be treated with respect, professor Roberta Stewart of the classics department said. Ultimately, Creon sentences her to death for her defiance.

After a police officer shot Brown, his body was left on the street for four hours following his death. Residents of Ferguson took to the streets in part to express their anger and frustration at what they viewed as the desecration of his body, on top of the injustice surrounding the police killing of an unarmed teenager. This desire to achieve a proper burial also brought forth issues larger in scope to the forefront, including racism and the militarization of the police. The act of burying a loved one, however, is  a theme that translates to the play.

“We’re not saying Brown is Polyneices — we’re not making some facile equivalent,” said Bryan Doerries, the artistic director of the production. “The whole point of the performance is to set up the conditions for a conversation in which people will interrogate what the word ‘Ferguson’ means to them.”

Audience members will hear a reading of the ancient Greek play accompanied by the Phil Woodmore Singers and the Dartmouth Gospel Choir. An open discussion will follow the reading, intentionally including input from different viewpoints and perspectives. The discussion is set to involve people from different facets of the conversation, including members of the Ferguson community who knew Brown personally, members of social justice groups like Standing Up for Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter and members of the law enforcement community from both the Hanover area and Ferguson.

“There are these micro-stories and layers within this project that are equally powerful – the fact that these community members from Ferguson are singing together to try to heal and seek dialogue around some really thorny racial issues in our country is amazing,” said Margaret Lawrence, the director of programming at the Hop.
The ultimate goal of “Antigone in Ferguson” is not to promote a progressive or conservative agenda through the reading of the play but instead to foster conversation. 

The convergence of divergent voices at the end of the reading is meant to “model a new definition of Ferguson that is positive and constructive,” Doerries said. 

Through the reading, Doerries hopes to put people in a less defensive position, allowing audience members to reflect upon their beliefs in a new and different way.

The mission of Theater of War Productions is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” Doerries said. Greek tragedies are rife with characters that doggedly pursue what they believe is just. Those involved in the production hope to raise the question of whether, like in a Greek tragedy, it is necessary for violence and death to occur as a catalyst for dramatic social change or if a society can be reformed through other, peaceful means.

In “Antigone,” the play ends with the preservation of societal order. However, that preservation costs Creon dearly. At the close of the play, he has lost all the members of his family.

“The goal [of “Antigone in Ferguson”] is the discourse itself, the recognition of the problem in all of its complexity,” Stewart said. “It’s a play that doesn’t give you an easy answer and doesn’t give you one answer.”