How Do You Solve a Problem Like Antigone?
Monday, February 2, 2015
By Sam Hurwitt
When three local theatre companies are all producing new versions of the same ancient Greek tragedy within a month of each other, you might well wonder what the heck is going on. When there are a lot of productions of Aristophanes's comedy Lysistrata during wartime, it's pretty easy to see why. But how do you solve a problem like Antigone?
Rhodessa Jones directs Xtigone at African-American Shakespeare Company. Photo: Courtesy of Rhodessa Jones
This February, the Cutting Ball Theater unveils Daniel Sullivan's new translation of Sophocles's 2,500-year-old tragedy and African-American Shakespeare Company presents the world premiere of Nambi E. Kelley's Xtigone, and then Shotgun Players opens Anne Carson's Antigonick in March. All of these productions have been in the works for quite some time, completely independent of each other.
"My own thought about it is there's a young woman standing up to the patriarchy, and that's why this is happening right now," says Mark Jackson, who's codirecting Antigonick with choreographer Hope Mohr. "The current feminist movement, its wave is really going and rolling. It's very strong, so people are doing Antigone. That's just a theory, but it seems like the most obvious one to me at the moment. I don't know if Paige [Rogers at Cutting Ball] chose it for that reason, or if African-American Shakespeare chose it for that reason. We didn't either. It was just something we were drawn to at this time. But I do believe in that zeitgeist principle. Something is in the air, and you go with it."
Xtigone director Rhodessa Jones agrees. "Because there is a woman who is defiant at the middle of it," she posits. "It is like facing down the powers that be, speaking truth to power, acting against power. I think it's just time for women. I always say that politics don't work, religion is a bit too eclectic, but art could be that parachute that catches us all. I think that it speaks to the times in that it's about civil disobedience. We have so little of that, because everybody's politically correct, everybody's holding close to their stuff. Everybody wants to remind everybody else that I've worked hard to get mine, and we forget about mercy. We forget about loving and caring for our neighbors. How do we all move forward here? How do we get past the violence against women, the murder of young black men? How do we get past the fear?"
Elissa Beth Stebbins and Madeline H. D. Brown work on the Cutting Ball Theater's Antigone at the Grotowski Institute in Poland.
Photo: Magda Madra of the Grotowski Institute
As an adaptation, Xtigone encourages these kinds of connections. In the original story, two brothers have killed each other in a civil war. The ruler, their uncle Kreon, has pronounced one of them a traitor whose body must remain unburied, but their sister Antigone publicly defies his decree and buries her brother's body, whatever the consequences. In Nambi E. Kelley's version, the brothers died in a gang war, and the play becomes a passionate indictment of gun violence and the deeper question of who profits from bringing these weapons into the community.
"I was born in Harlem, but I was raised in Chicago, on the south side, in some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago," Kelley says on the phone from her home in New York (she splits her time between there and Chicago). "It's sort of a perennial thing, that violence happens pretty much every spring. As soon as the weather gets warm, all of a sudden a whole bunch of kids end up dead."
The idea to use the story of Antigone to explore this painful topic came to Kelley, who's also an actor who works nationally and internationally, after she performed in a 9/11-themed production of the tragedy at South Coast Rep in 2004. A few years later she met African-American Shakespeare Company artistic director L. Peter Callender while he was visiting Chicago, where she was performing in a Steppenwolf production, and got him interested in the adaptation she was working on. Xtigone was originally announced for a production in 2012, but was postponed and replaced in the company's season with A Raisin in the Sun.
"We didn't quite have the team that we needed to do to execute the play, so the decision was made that we should table it and wait until we have everything right," Kelley recalls. "It gave us more time to find the people that we really wanted to do this story, because it's such an important story to get right."
Besides the modern urban take and the musicality of Kelley's dialogue, there are some striking reversals in Xtigone. Here the Kreon equivalent, Marcellus, is the one who wants both brothers to be buried to let the community heal and move on from the tragedy. And it's Xtigone who demands that her brother be left unburied because covering up his body is like trying to cover up the truth, to bury the issue of these guns and these dead children instead of addressing it and trying to fix anything. It's also Xtigone who draws the moral line between the two brothers, deciding which one should be laid to rest with honor and which one should be left to rot.
"The unburying, for me, is akin to the choice that Mamie Till made in 1955, to show her son's face, Emmett Till's face," Kelley says. "Instead of hiding it and having a closed casket, she chose to have an open casket funeral. My father was one of the young people who went to see that. My grandmother took him and my uncles and my aunts to go see his body. That really is the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, this choice that she made to not hide, but to reveal exactly what had been done. For me, Xtigone in the play is a modern-day Mamie Till, saying, 'We're not going to cover this up. We're going to uncover it, so that we can actually get to the bottom of what it is that's causing this and hopefully facilitate some sort of change.'"
One thing that's important for Kelley is that the play speaks to the responsibility that the actual people in power bear for gun and gang violence. "A lot of times when people talk about the violence that's happening in our urban areas, people say, 'Oh, we have to talk to the young people,'" she says. "But the young people are the victims of a messed-up system that hasn't allowed them their humanity. Yes, the young people need to see the play, but so do the old heads who make all the decisions, so do the people in office. The onus isn't on young people to facilitate that kind of change, it really isn't. They didn't make this world."
Despite these shifts in perspective, Kelley's Xtigone closely follows the structure of Sophocles's play. "I thought it was important to follow the structure of the original play mostly because I wanted the parallels to be really, really clear," she says, "as opposed to, well, Nambi has taken this play and has sort of reimagined it in a way that is not recognizable. I want you to very clearly recognize what is Greek.
Sometimes people will read the script and they'd be like, 'No, you should totally blow it up!' And I'm like, 'Yeah, but that's kind of not the point.' I could just write an original play, if that was the point. The point is, how are these stories parallel? And how does this shed light on where we are today?"
Soon after the San Francisco production, Xtigone will have a second production in the city that inspired it. Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble is producing the play in May.
For Paige Rogers, associate artistic director of Cutting Ball, the notion to stage a new translation of Antigone came about simply because she couldn't settle on any of the existing ones.
"I directed Mud and I had the best time of my entire life," she recalls. "It was after I'd seen Zar for the first time [Polish theatre company Teatr Zar—more on them later]. I'd seen their first show, and it really affected how I directed Mud." So she talked to her husband, company artistic director Rob Melrose, about what her next project would be. "I said, 'Robbie, listen I had such a good time directing Mud. Then I did this devised work, Tontlawald, but I'm a beginning director. I've always directed at high schools, but I'm just starting on my directing career. If I was a MFA student, and you were my professor, what would you suggest that I direct?' He gave me a list of it must have been 15 plays. We had them all here at home. I took six weeks to slowly get through the list. I said, 'I want to do Antigone.'" She laughs. "That's how it came to be. It was an assignment."
But which Antigone? That was the problem.
"When I told Rob I'd chosen Antigone, he said, 'Oh, fabulous. I think that's a great choice. It's going to be great for the company.' I said, 'Okay, great. I want to read a lot of translations.' He then puts on the table, after about 20 minutes, 11 translations of Antigone that he himself had here in the house. I mean, I had one. I think it was the Fitzgerald one. He said, 'Here you go,' 11 in my own house. I said, 'Oh, thank you, spouse.' So I slowly started making my way through them all. I made notes about different facets of characters and how I perceived them to be. It was vastly different! Frequently, Kreon would be the biggest, meanest asshole, but often Antigone would be the most passive‑aggressive, bitchy person. I was like, 'Robbie, this is driving me crazy. What is it really in ancient Greek? These people are taking liberties in some way, but how is it really?' He said, 'Well, maybe you want to do a new translation where you can kind of be in the sidelines.' I said, 'Oh jeez, that seems really complicated.' He said, 'Okay, do what you want, but that's my suggestion.'"
Enter Daniel Sullivan, and in an unusual way. "I had just moved back to the Bay Area in 2010," recalls Sullivan, who grew up in San Leandro and now lives in Alameda after a long absence from the Bay Area. "I had been working in the Central Valley, and I'd come back home, and a friend of mine suggested I go see this play, Tontlawald, over at Cutting Ball. I didn't know much about the Bay Area scene because I'd been living in other states. I'd gone to see the play and I was really affected by it, so I wrote a note to the director, who happened to be Paige."
"After Tontlawald, I got many emails," Rogers says. "People either hated it or loved it. It was one of those things. One email in particular was six pages long, literally. It was the longest email I've ever received in my life. I wrote to the guy back, and I said, 'Thank you so much. I can't really read this now, because my little children are getting out of school. We're going on summer break. But I'll get back to you.'"
Rogers says she likes to have a "buddy" to go through the creative process with for these intense directing projects—for Tontlawald it was codirector Annie Paladino—and when she finally got around to reading Sullivan's dispatch, she felt she'd found a kindred spirit. "I really potentially wanted to work with this guy, because we see eye‑to‑eye on a lot of things," she says. "I could tell from his email that we are in this same head space about theatre." So she talked to him about working on a new translation of Antigone.
"The goal was to try to be as true to the original ancient Greek as possible," Rogers says. "And here is the deal that's kind of interesting. He wrote that first scene between Antigone and Ismene, and he had a male scholar at that time who was helping him get through that ancient Greek more quickly. And he hands me this piece. I was like, 'Well, I've read this scene written like this before, where it's very catty between the two of them. Why does it have this take?' He said, 'Well, this guy says this.' He was moving on to this woman who was an ancient Greek scholar and a Berkeley professor. And I said, 'Well, would you mind taking that same scene to her and see what she has to say about it, from the female perspective?' And he came back and said, 'Oh yeah, that was very different, what she had to say about it.' So I don't know. Maybe it has to do with genitalia, how the takes come out, but of course I preferred her take on the translation of the ancient Greek. I much preferred it, because for me, just personally, the play is about family."
Xtigone playwright Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Joe Mazza
It's been a long process, putting this Antigone together. Sullivan has been working with Rogers on the translation for more than a year, but the cast also has had a long process of working together already, long before the start of the traditional rehearsal process. In August the Cutting Ball artists spent two weeks studying at the Grotowski Institute in Brezenkia, Poland with Teatr Zar, the acclaimed Polish company that emphasizes movement and polyphonic singing much more than text. "It was specifically to be in residence out in the forest," Rogers says. "Literally, there was no town. I think the closest town was 15 miles away. Their two main choreographer guys worked with us, each for four days, one at the very beginning of our trip, and one at the very end. They had very different physical approaches. Two of the strongest singers in that group then worked with us for three days on polyphonic singing." Now, she says of the cast, "they've physically in their bodies got their characters so well, and also kinesthetically a relationship with one another. They know how their character moves, and how they relate to one another, especially the relatives—Antigone, Ismene, Kreon, Eurydice and Haemon are all related to one another."
Paul Loper, Wiley Naman Strasser, Tim Green, Jason W. Wong and Paige Rogers work on the Cutting Ball Theater's Antigone at the Grotwoksi Institute in Poland.
Photo: Magda Madra of the Grotowski Institute
Amusingly enough, when Rogers was looking through translations, one of them was the version by Canadian poet, classics professor and MacArthur "Genius" grantee Carson Anne Carson, which Shotgun is producing not long after Cutting Ball's. In her early conversations with Melrose, Rogers recalls, "He said, 'Wait, have you read this Antigonick?' I read that, and I said, 'This is good! This is really amazing.' He said, 'Well, yeah, I don't know if she would let you do that or not.'"
The curious thing about Antigonick is it doesn't seem particularly designed for performance but more as an artifact unto itself. It was released as a book designed by Carson's husband, Robert Currie, with illustrations by Bianca Stone. The text is all handwritten in capital letters, sometimes with long spaces on the page between words, and Stone's surreal illustrations are interspersed on translucent pages, so that they appear superimposed over the text. It's often difficult to understand what exactly the illustrations are intended to illustrate, and there's a good reason for that.
"The illustrator, Bianca Stone, was a student of Currie's," explains Mark Jackson. "They allowed her to read the script once, took it away, then she made all of this art, not all of which ended up in the book. Through some mathematical process, Currie randomly inserted the art into the text. Then they kept the happy accidents that they liked and made some choices. So why one image is juxtaposed against a particular section of the text is not something that's been worked out intellectually. It's something that's been put together through a combination of chance and intuition. And the art, in the first place, was based on one read of the text. Before we knew that, we were puzzling over everything in great detail. 'Why would this image be over this text?' We were really looking for meaning to it. And there is meaning to it that you can find, but they're really into John Cage and accidents and randomness and intuition. So we found what the meaning is for us."
Like Rogers, Jackson and his codirector settled upon to this project almost at random. "Hope Mohr and I met at a Creative Capital workshop several years ago, which is a sort of business workshop for artists," Jackson says. "We were each other's Creative Capital buddies afterwards. They encourage people to pair up and follow up with each other and keep each other on task after the workshop. For about six months we met every month and chatted. At a certain point Hope said, 'We should do something together.' She had some Beckett plays, and she had Antigonick on the table. I opened up Antigonick and read one page and said, 'Oh, let's work on this.' She said, 'Don't you want to read it first?' I said, 'No, this looks perfect.' We got in the studio for two weeks just to see if we liked working together. We didn't really have any plans or intentions to do the piece."
That was August 2012. The following January they did a longer workshop of the play at ODC for three weeks, which led to the upcoming Shotgun production as part of its 2015 season of all female playwrights (followed in May by Heart Shaped Nebula by Marisela Treviño Orta, whose play The River Bride is published in this issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine). Assuming, that is, that this version of Antigone was even available for performance.
"Anne Carson and her husband were in town a while ago, because she had something at Stanford she was doing for three months, and we met with them," Jackson says. "Our impression was they made this, it was an art book, there was no intention for it to be done in the theatre. But they didn't mind. They've given us the rights to do it. They've given a few other people the rights to do it. So they're not withholding it, but they think of it as an art book."
One might think from the name that Antigonick features a male version of Antigone or something like that. But no, Antigone is still Antigone. There's discussion of the word "nick" in Carson's text, of the question of what the "nick" in "the nick of time" is supposed to mean anyway. And then there's an additional character in Antigonick named Nick who's mentioned only twice in the book—in the dramatis personae and on the last page. "It says, 'Nick a mute part [always onstage, he measures things],'" Jackson explains. "That's in the cast list. Then at the very end it says, 'Exeunt omnes except for Nick who continues'—lots of blank space, then, 'measuring.' That's the only mention. We thought, 'What do we do with that?'"
Carson's translation has given the directors and cast plenty of room for interpretation. Besides the question of how to embody this silent but omnipresent character in movement, there's also the dilemma of what to do with the illustrations. "In the three-week workshop in January 2013, Kevin Clarke, who'll be playing Kreon, said, 'We haven't really dealt so explicitly with the images from the book yet. That seems like a missing piece in what we're doing. It might be a key to the trouble that we're having.' Because at the end of that workshop, we felt like the material we had made at that point was not radical enough in the way that the book is radical. It's not radical if we can point to it and say, 'That looks just like dance' or 'That looks like theatre that I've seen before.'"
The radical element of Antigonick goes way beyond the visual element. This is a version of Antigone in which the characters are constantly analyzing their own story, even discussing the way they've been interpreted in the past by Hegel and Brecht.
"She calls it a translation; I would call it more of an adaptation since it's so radically different," says Jackson. "Long passages have been reduced to, for example, the word 'bingo,' in one case. Somehow all the anachronisms feel very organic. And she's distilled it quite a lot. It's actually quite short, the text, but it's very emotionally powerful and compact. For me, personally, it's the most exciting translation or adaptation, whichever word one prefers to use, of Antigone that I've read. It's respectful of the original in that it conveys the characters and their situation with the power and the strength, but it's not reverent. She gives all the characters an awareness of their fame as literary figures and somehow makes this seem not cheeky but very organic to who they are as a public family that has been on stage for their whole lives."
That very irreverence has been a sort of clue to how much the creative team should worry about replicating the visual imagery of the book onstage. "Rather than literally trying to take the aesthetic of the art work and put it on stage in the design, we're trying to go with the impulses behind how they did it and use the impulses behind how they created the book, and find the equivalent of that in theatre language, so that the story is being presented in a way that feels surprising and makes people see it and listen to it and not simply have expectations of Antigone played out in front of us."
Kevin Clarke, Justin Morrison, Caitlyn Louchard, Hope Mohr and Kenny Toll during the January 2013 workshop of Antigonick. Photo: Mark Jackson
Even if the "why now" of this strange convergence of Antigones seems to have been largely a matter of happenstance, there's clearly something in this ancient story from thousands of years ago that's speaking powerfully to all these artists right now and addressing issues that still feel vital to discuss and explore today.
"It's kind of daunting," reflects Rhodessa Jones. "Is it that we haven't moved? That we're still standing in the same space? I don't know. Or is it just the beauty of it? Maybe it's that universality of our struggles is like the sun, they are revolving constantly. I don't know. I read someplace recently, 'I think a perfect world would be very boring.' Maybe those authors knew this—that these are just situations that are going to be. They're just going to be. And then the artist is called upon to unearth them again."
Xtigone plays February 14–March 8, produced by African-American Shakespeare Company; visit african-americanshakes.org. Antigone plays February 19–March 22, produced by the Cutting Ball Theater; visit cuttingball.com. Antigonick plays March 18–April 29, produced by Shotgun Players; visit shotgunplayers.org.
Sam Hurwitt is editor-in-chief for Theatre Bay Area. He is also the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization.