On Oct. 8, Theater of War Productions began their yearlong residency at Kenyon with a virtual production of Antigone in Ferguson. An interpretation of Sophocles’ Antigone aimed at promoting audience discussion on police brutality, the production presented a rousing rendition of the ancient play, featuring live choral music and a conversation between community members.
The Zoom performance was open to the Five Colleges of Ohio, and the subsequent discussion included student panelists from each school, faculty members, parents and other students in attendance.
Bryan Doerries ’98 — the artistic director for Theater of War and leading facilitator of its post-production discussions — introduced Theater of War Productions to Kenyon on Sept. 24 with his lecture “Tragedies of the Pandemic.” This lecture paved the way for their premiere of Antigone in Ferguson.
The production comes at a time of social and political upheaval, propelled by Michael Brown Jr.’s murder by police in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. The brutal police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities are also major focal points of the play.
Antigone in Ferguson was introduced by Doerries as a performance with the intent to “culminate in powerful, healing discussions about racialized violence, police brutality, systemic oppression, gender-based violence and social justice.” He added, “it is our hope that Antigone in Ferguson will generate dialogue, consciousness, compassion, outrage, understanding and positive action.”
The performance opened with a powerful choral arrangement directed by Dr. Philip A. Woodmore and sung by a choir of voices from St. Louis, Missouri and New York City. This dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Antigone, a play dating back to 441 B.C.E., features notable actors like Tracie Thoms and Jason Isaacs. The play follows Antigone, a young woman determined to bury the body of her brother Polynices after he dies in battle contesting his throne in the Theban Civil War. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes and uncle to Antigone, rules that Polynices, as a traitor to the city, would be left untouched on the battlefield and not granted funeral rites as the ultimate punishment for his deeds. The play examines the dynamic between Antigone, the Theban people and the law of the state, and what can befall a community divided by personal convictions, murder, destruction and injustice.
After the dramatic reading, De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson, a Missouri school social worker, and choir member, joined Doerries in facilitating and guiding post-production conversation among audience members. Blaylock-Johnson spoke on her experience working with a choir made up of community members from all walks of life. “Although we have different perspectives, we always approached each other with the intent to hear and understand, not just to respond,” she said. She expressed hope that the discussion between the students and community would proceed in kind.
After Doerries and Blaylock-Johnson began the discussion immediately following the performance, panelists representing the Five Colleges presented personal stories and their initial reactions to the play. Facilitators’ major questions focused on the play’s continued relevance over 2400 years, and how portions of the show had resonated with the audience members’ personal experiences.
Panelist Jaz Nappier, a student from the College of Wooster, began her statement noting the sense of community within the community chorus and the Black aesthetic brought to such a classical piece through its performers. Nappier and multiple audience members noted the line “May we never forget what happened here,” a repeated statement in the choral arrangements, for its relevance to racialized violence. Miko Harper, of Ohio Wesleyan University, called attention to the choral lyrics, “generation after generation, this house has been cursed since the beginning of time,” and generally discussed the sheer amount of tragedy and cursedness associated with Blackness.
Tariq Thompson ’21 noted how Creon, leader of Thebes, constantly insisted on “placing the value of the state and city over human lives,” and his disbelief that people in positions of political power often follow that model. “How can we love each other and love ourselves … being in the face of tyranny, being in the face of hatred, that permeates?” he said.
Student panelist Diwe Augustin-Glave of Oberlin College discussed the importance of ritual and honoring the dead in the face of authoritarian pressures that hold us back.
The panelists’ remarks then transitioned into an open discussion for all attendees. Speakers included a range of students, college faculty, parents and others, who both built off of each other’s ideas and stories and raised their own. Topics of conversation included the commodification and defiling of Black bodies, the perpetuation of white privilege and entitlement, lack of intersectional understanding, current political injustice and the connection between belonging and blame for racialized violence. The final audience member who spoke remarked, “Watching a production full of diverse, beautiful, talented people of color was really important to me; it made me understand that I should never be afraid of my Blackness … that my Blackness is too much or won’t get me to where I want to go.”
Theater of War Productions’ next virtual performance, The Book of Job, will be presented to Knox County in early December. This production aims to inspire an interfaith, post-election discussion with Knox County.