Since my folks are visiting from out of town, I did what any good New Yorker would do and put together a schedule of the city’s finest free events, of which there are many in the summer. Though pleased to find a new staging of Sophocles’ play, Antigone by the Classical Theater of Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park, I gave it little thought after adding it to the calendar. It was free and outdoors. What more did I need to know?
Prepared for nothing more than an enjoyable evening of culture, I did not expect to be completely wrapped, transported, and utterly blown away. But I was, along with everyone else in the audience as far as I could tell.
The stage’s setting is decidedly a dystopia, though one not far from our own day and age. The brutalist concrete building that provides the backdrop could easily be a government office in any major metropolitan area. Vaguely belligerent banners bearing faded sun symbols that line the building’s exterior second story suggest those that fly beneath it know war all too well. Its facade is covered with a memorial similar to those for victims of all too frequent mass shootings and incidents of police brutality. Candles, flowers, and stuffed animals crowd the wall’s ledge. Handmade signs provide context, “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop killing our sons,” and “End the War Before It Ends You” among them. The scene is as disturbing as it is familiar.
The stage’s design is made more uncanny still by Katherine Freer’s projections that lend a kineticism to the play throughout. Moments of uncertainty are punctuated with stage-wide static. A prophet’s foretelling of doom is cast in blood red. A somber blue light accompanies grief and mourning while fiery orange washes over the characters in their anger.
Antigone, played by Alexandria King and her sister Ismene, played by Ava Mccoy, appear from stage right. The war between their home city of Thebes and its enemies just ended and the conflict’s hero, Creon, has been crowned king. As his first act he decrees different fates for their brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who both died at each others hands. Eteocles is to receive full burial rights as a patriot while Polyneices will be left outside the city walls to be consumed by the vultures. This is no small thing for the Greeks who believed that without proper burial rights, the dead cannot cross over the River Lethe into the Underworld of forgetfulness.
In delivering Antigone’s arguments as to why she and her sister should disobey the king’s law to follow the gods’ and bury their brother, King projects the unwavering strength of a woman bent on justice. Still, the pragmatist Ismene demures. Antigone vows to take up the task on her own.
Enter the chorus, reimagined from the stoic, homogeneous group of performers of Greek tragedy into a trio that takes its cues from the African-American church chorus that surround Marcus Garvey Park on Sundays with a joyful noise. Their first song celebrates the end of the war, giving glory to god while tracing the building’s ramp.
Beneath, contemporary dancers provide a counterpoint to the chorus’ exhalations with stark movements and sharp angles that mimic militaristic gestures, as if to serve as a reminder of all the deaths that occurred to bring about this celebration.
With the foundation thus set, the play drives on. Ty Jones’ brilliantly played Creon, uncertain in his political power, relies on the draconian laws that win wars, but govern poorly. The exchanges between Creon and Antigone mark particularly powerful moments throughout the play. The entire audience collectively gasped when Antigone stamps a period at the end of her argument against Creon’s edict by spitting in his face.
At times the script diverges from the original with contemporary notes of comic relief, particularly from Anthony Vaughn Merchant’s guard who at one point responds to Creon’s aloofness with the quip, “you get one Whole Foods and start acting all bougie,” referring to the controversial upscale supermarket on the corner of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevards. Well timed and executed, the ad libs help bring the play into the contemporary moment.
As the play concludes with the tragedy the Creon’s hubris has wrought, the deaths of Antigone, his own son, and his wife, the lights fade to projected graffiti of (some of) the African-Americans who have died at the hands of racism and police brutality.
Freddy Gray, Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Emit Till, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, and many, many more.
While the original play’s plot is not an exact parallel allegory to the systematic racism that pervades much of America’s legal system, it is more than analogous enough to carry the production’s reinterpretation. Creon’s refusal to acknowledge the will of his subjects and the higher laws he’s broken mirror our own government’s deafness to the calls for civil rights. The fear inspired inaction of Thebes’ citizenry who did not intervene on behalf of Antigone speaks to the complicit inertia of Americans who are either unaffected by or benefiting from by systematic racism.
The success of this departure from the original meaning in favor of contemporary one is largely made possible by the production’s focus not on the drama of Antigone’s death, but on her audacity to question the status quo. Bolstered by King’s powerful portrayal of our heroine, the bravery of her actions while living become the crux of the play. In the end, Classical Theater of Harlem’s production of Antigone is both a theatrical accomplishment in and of itself as well as a powerful call to action for social justice. It’s also super entertaining.
Antigone runs through July 29, 2018.