UC sponsors ‘Antigone in Ferguson’

Reading of Greek tale Oct. 2 will include public discussion on social justice

The tragedies of Sophocles still resonate today for their pathos and universal themes of family loyalty, religious conviction and grief.

The University of Cincinnati is co-sponsoring a free virtual Zoom production on Oct. 2 of “Antigone in Ferguson” by the acclaimed Theater of War, which presents readings of classical Greek tragedies followed by a public discussion about how the themes from the ancient texts are relevant today.

Theater of War will present a reading of Sophocles’ “Antigone” with music by a live choir and a moderated public forum on social justice and structural oppression. Following the reading and choir performance, invited panelists will offer their thoughts before opening the discussion to the Zoom audience.

UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and the Department of Classics in the College of Arts and Sciences join universities including Harvard, Georgetown and Emory in sponsoring the performance.

“The fact that we have multiple colleges on our campus giving financial support to this project says a lot about our values and how we go about supporting projects that matter to us,” said Brant Russell, an associate professor in CCM’s acting program.

A painting of Antigone performing funeral rites on her slain brother.

In the Greek tragedy "Antigone," the title character performs funeral rites for her slain brother in defiance of the king's orders. Artist Jules-Eugène Lenepveu captured Antigone's devotion in this 1800s painting. Photo/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because it’s a virtual performance, a much larger audience than normal is likely to see it, said Caitlin Hines, assistant professor of Classics at UC.

“Antigone” tells the sweeping story of a sister’s love and loyalty to a brother. Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polyneices are slain while fighting on opposing sides of a civil war. Eteocles is given a hero’s funeral. King Creon refuses burial rites to Polyneices as punishment for his revolt.

“Everyone answered to the gods,” Hines said. “So for Creon to demand that a citizen’s body be treated with disrespect against religious practice — to an Athenian audience, it was absolutely horrific and unthinkable.”

Antigone performs funeral rituals for her beloved brother, knowing her defiance is a capital offense. Confronted by the king, she argues that the edict was outrageous and unjust. Complicating matters, Antigone is to wed the king’s son, Haemon. Unmoved, Creon orders Antigone to be entombed alive.

Greek tragedies work through the most difficult aspects of the human condition.

Caitlin Hines, UC assistant professor of Classics

An illustration of Sophocles.

Sophocles.

After receiving counsel and seeing the public’s outrage about the treatment of Antigone and her slain brother, the king relents and agrees to bury Antigone’s brother and free her. But it’s too late. Antigone has taken her life. In his grief, Haemon takes his life. And having lost her only son, Creon’s wife takes hers as well. The king is left alone, full of regret. Roll credits.

“Antigone’s devastating narrative really exemplifies how relevant these ancient texts still are,” Hines said. “Greek tragedies work through the most difficult aspects of the human condition. How do you create a just society? How do you make laws and enforce them without authoritarianism? All of these questions feel so modern – we’re still struggling to find the right answers.”

Hines said Antigone might represent anyone who stands up to authoritarian rule.

“Antigone is an important figure for moral activism in the face of a legal system that does not necessarily make space for that activism,” she said. “The play explores the dangers of autocratic power, where resistance is forbidden and those who resist are executed.”

Theater of War uses “Antigone” to discuss social justice. “Antigone in Ferguson” refers to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But the show’s producers also mention police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that have catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. The choir is composed of civic leaders from Ferguson, including teachers, police officers and other people who knew Brown and were affected by his death.

In a sepia painting, Antigone greets the blind Oedipus with her sister, Ismene, in front of the Temple of the Furies.

German artist Anton Raphael Mengs captures Antigone greeting her blinded father, Oedipus, in front of the Temple of the Furies in this painting from the 1700s. Photo/Metropolitan Museum of Art

CCM’s Russell said the performance is timely. Cities across the United States and, indeed, around the world saw protests for social justice this year.

“A lot of my students at UC were part of those protests,” he said.

CCM and UC Classics collaborated to bring Theater of War to UC in 2017. The production featured a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax,” which served as a framework to talk about post-traumatic stress among war veterans.

“It was quite an emotional experience for students who had family members who served in the military,” said UC Classics doctoral student Allie Pohler, who attended the performance.

She is studying the Roman comedies of Plautus. The ancient texts still resonate with people today, she said.

“A lot of themes they wrote about had to do with questions that we deal with now,” she said. “At their heart, they’re very human problems.”

In “Antigone,” Pohler sees a question of civil disobedience, which is particularly relevant with the global protests of 2020.

“Choosing between obeying a law you know to be wrong or unjust or defying that law and doing what you believe to be right,” she said. “It’s a hard decision.”

The Zoom production of “Antigone in Ferguson” will feature performers Tracie Thoms, who appeared in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and Nyasha Hatendi, featured in the Hulu series “Casual.” The choir features Michael Brown’s former teachers Duane Foster and De-Rance Blaylock.

Russell said virtual performances likely will endure beyond the global pandemic. Creative artists are embracing the format in film, TV and, of course, digital platforms.

“Producing theater in this digital-mediated environment is a challenge,” Russell said. “The more facile we become with this format, the better we’ll be preparing students for their profession. I don’t think Zoom-mediated performances will go away, even when things return to normal.”

Featured image at top: The choir of Theater of War sings together virtually during a presentation of "Antigone in Ferguson."

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