Rollicking, glorious gospel music thundered through Harlem Stage’s stately theater earlier this week, greeting the audience that had assembled for Theater of War Productions’ preview performance of “Antigone in Ferguson.” The show was conceptualized in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and it consists of a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy performed with live, original choral music, followed by an audience-driven discussion — moderated by facilitators and a panel of community members — on such issues as law enforcement, race relations, police brutality and social justice.
Bryan Doerries, co-founder and artistic director of Theater of War Productions, has been creating events since 2009 that utilize ancient Greek plays to launch discussions around public health and social issues. Topics include PTSD and combat-related injuries in military communities, substance abuse, addiction, suicide, prison reform and end-of-life care. When Doerries was approached by a community member of Ferguson shortly after Brown’s death, the subject felt so charged that it took him over a year to make the decision to move forward with an event. He commissioned Phil Woodmore, a local middle school teacher and musician, to compose music for the show and assemble a chorus, and brought together a cast that included well-known actors Samira Wiley, Glenn Davis and Reg E. Cathey. Doerries arrived in Ferguson 30 days later not knowing what to expect, and was overwhelmed by the community’s interest in and response to the project.
“We arrived to ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ T-shirts and posters and billboards. We arrived to a huge number of the socially active artists in the communities’ murals already up in the church and in the high school” that Brown attended. “I arrived to a choir that included two of Michael Brown’s teachers, probably 12, 13 police officers and their spouses, Black Lives Matter activists, social workers, a sex therapist.” And then there was the music. “I arrived to what I would consider to be virtuosic — raw, not professionally formed, but full of spirit and full of talent,” so much so that a producer for the Blind Boys of Alabama tried to license it, Doerries said.
“It’s hard to express,” he added, “how profoundly moving it was to hear this music and to see a community that so desperately wanted to redefine what Ferguson meant for themselves come together in this way in spite of incredible differences.”
The performances sparked emotional, difficult conversations among the audience, panelists and performers, and Doerries has since toured the show to Baltimore, Brooklyn, Manhattan, St. Louis and even Greece. The engagement at Harlem Stage is the first time “Antigone in Ferguson” will be performed in an extended run with a more permanent home. A rotating cast of actors such as Wiley, Paul Giamatti, Tamara Tunie, David Strathairn, Adepero Oduye and Kathryn Erbe will perform, and transportation will be offered to various community and youth groups from all five boroughs to attend the free performances.
“The idea is to make it clear that this is not a project that is about the cultural elite,” said James King, managing director of Harlem Stage. “This is for everybody — the average person who wants to engage in a dialogue around the issues that this piece brings up.”
If the performance last Wednesday is a barometer for how “Antigone in Ferguson” will be received by New Yorkers this time around, the show’s organizers and producers have nothing to fear. The audience was committed and a heated discussion followed the reading, with cops, ex-prisoners, high school students, teachers, activists, community organizers and others speaking openly about deeply personal experiences, opinions and issues. No one seemed inclined to hold back.
“I think ultimately the play itself, Sophocles’ ‘Antigone,’ is the entry point,” King said. “As we look at community policing and we look at the relationship between community and government and policing in particular, all of those things are addressed in the play, and that becomes the entry point that allows people to latch on to the themes as they are presented in the play and engage in a dialogue that hopefully offers healing and an opportunity to be heard. A lot of people are frustrated by the notion that they are not being heard.”
“Antigone in Ferguson” runs at Harlem Stage through October 13. To reserve a free ticket, click here.
Top Image: The company of Theater of War Productions’ "Antigone in Ferguson" at Harlem Stage. Courtesy of Gregg Richards