For the past four years, the social justice-oriented troupe the Theater of War has brought together the worlds of ancient Greece and contemporary American Midwest in “Antigone in Ferguson,” created after Black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014 by white police officer Darren Wilson.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the production team’s work online, creating virtual performances of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old text and honoring Brown’s memory.
Dated to 442 or 441 B.C., “Antigone” tells the story of Oedipus’ daughter and her quest to honorably bury her brother Polynices, killed during a civil war, against the decree of her uncle Creon, Thebes’ new king. The play deals with themes of divine justice and human law, family and civic loyalty, and gendered power dynamics. In the Theater of War production, which premiered in 2016, actors perform a staged reading of the work alongside a chorus of community members; the reading is followed by a facilitated public discussion about racism and police violence.
On Friday, Theater of War will mount their second digital performance of “Antigone in Ferguson,” sponsored by Harvard’s departments of Theater, Dance & Media and the Classics, as well as other universities, including Duke and Georgetown. A related artist talk and Q&A session with Bryan Doerries and Phil Woodmore, respectively the show’s artistic director and composer/conductor, will take place Monday and is open to affiliates of Harvard affiliates and other sponsoring institutions.
This week’s production features a one-hour reading of “Antigone” with actors including Tracie Thoms and Nyasha Hatendi, as well as New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The performance also includes music from the “Antigone in Ferguson” choir, led by De-Rance Blaylock, a former teacher of Michael Brown. Doerries and social worker De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson will facilitate a community panel discussion on the play’s themes and their connection to racism and police violence, with a panel that includes Shamell Bell, a Harvard lecturer on somatic performance and contemporary global performance.
For many involved in “Antigone in Ferguson,” the Theater of War production was personal: Both lead vocalist Blaylock and soloist Duane Foster taught Brown at Normandy High School, where the show premiered.
“His murder took a huge toll on me,” said Blaylock, who now sings professionally in St. Louis. “So when I was given this opportunity to be a part of ‘Antigone in Ferguson,’ I jumped on the chance, because I wanted to let people know that Michael Brown was human. Michael Brown was not the thug that everyone claimed him to be. He was a human being, he was a kid who just graduated from high school and was ready to take care of business when it came to his life.
“To be able to perform Greek mythology and compare it to what happened to Mike is amazing. To hear the responses from so many people around the world and still [be] hearing responses from people who saw our previous performance in August is amazing,” she said. “I’m glad that his name and his life are not, and were not, in vain.”
Naomi A. Weiss, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of the Humanities, and Debra Levine , a lecturer on Theater, Dance & Media, spearheaded Harvard’s sponsorship of the production. They said they wanted to support a project that engaged audiences with classical texts at the same time it offered an avenue for artistic expression and community engagement on urgent social issues.