Missouri Theater Embraces Ferguson Echoes In 'Antigone' Production
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sophocles wrote "Antigone" in the fifth century B.C., but the human condition and human complexities and frailties persist through centuries. So that's why a group of actors and singers will stage the ancient Greek tragedy tonight in Ferguson, Mo. Their performance will take place in a church that is just blocks from the police station that became the focus of protests after the police killing of Michael Brown. It is hoped that "Antigone's" themes will mean something in the town where Black Lives Matter became a national movement. Willis Ryder Arnold of member station KWMU reports.
WILLIS RYDER ARNOLD, BYLINE: Bryan Doerries is a director who puts on ancient Greek plays. He says his productions aren't boring classroom exercises.
BRYAN DOERRIES: These are readings on steroids, and spit is flying and tears are projectile crying off the stage, and sounds are coming up out of the actors that they've never heard themselves make before.
ARNOLD: After the performance, Doerries asks the audience to react. He leads a conversation that can take as long as the actual play. For him, the performance is a chance to ask some deeper questions.
DOERRIES: How many different ways can we give you, as the audience, permission to have a conversation that wouldn't otherwise be possible, to speak your personal truths, to be acknowledged and heard?
ARNOLD: A local resident urged Doerries to bring his project to Ferguson. Doerries will present "Antigone." It's a play about a teenager whose family feud became a civil war. Her brother lost and died. Her uncle won and won't let Antigone bury her brother. The body is left waiting on the ground. Wellspring Church is down the street from the Ferguson Police Department and has provided sanctuary for protesters over the past two years. Its pastor, Willis Johnson, says the play reflects the struggle facing his community.
WILLIS JOHNSON: Disregard for humanity, disrespect for body and this whole clash or tension between individual rights and larger empire or system.
ARNOLD: As a white man from New York, Doerries says he found the idea of directing the performance in Ferguson intimidating.
DOERRIES: I certainly didn't want to come at race through the front door. Everything seemed so charged, and it's been one incident after the next in city after city after city where the stakes really couldn't seem higher at this point.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ANTIGONE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) This house...
ARNOLD: And those stakes couldn't be higher for protesters or police. Officer John Leggette is a St Louis cop who sings as part of the play's chorus. He was on duty during the protests held in the city after Michael Brown was killed. Leggette says he views the project as an extension of his police work.
JOHN LEGGETTE: Just getting out and talking with the citizens, a lot of times they just want to be heard. They want to be listened to. They want to know that someone actually took the time to listen to them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ARNOLD: And that's what the conversation part of "Antigone" in Ferguson hopes to offer, a time to talk and a time to listen.
LEGGETTE: So I think I'm really excited about the conversation, and I think it's a start. We have to start somewhere.
ARNOLD: Leggette and the choir are joined in the play by well-known actors. They include Samira Wiley, who appears on "Orange Is The New Black" and "Mr. Robot's" Gloria Reuben. Reuben plays Antigone's sister who tells Antigone to obey her uncle's law.
GLORIA REUBEN: (As Ismene) We must do as we are told. We must perform acts far worse than this. So seeing as I have no choice, I will ask our family's forgiveness and obey those who have authority.
ARNOLD: Reuben was attracted to the play's moral ambiguity.
REUBEN: You know, Antigone may have the moral highground - she may be right, but maybe what she's doing is not the right thing.
ARNOLD: The performance is supposed to challenge assumptions of right and wrong without choosing sides. Samira Wiley says the audience won't be given any answers.
SAMIRA WILEY: They don't even necessarily have to be impacted by it in some huge, wonderful, life-changing way. But just as long as people were there and they can have a conversation about it, I think that we did our job.
ARNOLD: And that's what everyone told me. The issues in Ferguson are too big, too complex, to be fixed by a play, but the group says it wants to offer something.
DOERRIES: We're just modeling the idea of different voices being heard together and being heard and validated and acknowledged no matter how angry, no matter how emotional.
ARNOLD: For NPR News, I'm Willis Ryder Arnold in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.