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'Antigone in Ferguson' uses Greek tragedy to explore modern ideas

De-Rance Blaylock, center, and choir members in Theater

De-Rance Blaylock, center, and choir members in Theater of War Productions' "Antigone in Ferguson" at Harlem Stage. Photo Credit: Gregg Richards

“The play is not the thing.”

Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Theater of War Productions, is adamant on this issue when talking about “Antigone in Ferguson,” the interactive piece running at Harlem Stage through Oct. 13. The staged reading of the Sophocles work is merely a prelude to the important part of the evening, when the audience is invited into the discussion. “The idea,” he said in a phone conversation the day before the Sept. 13 opening, is to empower the community ‘”to use this Greek platform to explore their ideas.”

It’s the working model for the group, which for 10 years has engaged audiences through innovative participatory theater, performing everywhere from Guantánamo Bay to a basketball court in Brooklyn. All performances in the five-week New York run are free, with a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, based in Greece. (Go to harlemstage.org for ticket information.)

An impressive list of actors has signed on. The rotating cast features, among others, Samira Wiley, Adepero Oduye, Chris Noth, Tamara Tunie and Tate Donovan. Wiley, who played Antigone when the piece was first performed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2016, talks about the relevance she sees in the piece. “It’s just a real highlight of the human condition and how we have been trying to live in harmony with each other from the beginning of time, “ she says. “It’s about . . . how we do that.”

Doerries worked on the piece for two years, after a friend asked him to address the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “I’ve never been more intimidated,” he says. Ultimately he decided on “Antigone” because it deals with the desecration of a body. Talking to people in Ferguson, he says, he learned it was leaving Brown’s body “above ground in the hot August heat . . . that caused people to leave their homes and go to the streets.”

The play includes powerful gospel music, written by Phil Woodmore, who directs a police choir in St. Louis. “He’d never written more than 15 minutes of music in his life,” says Doerries, who calls the music “virtuosic.” It’s sung by a choir that includes police officers from Missouri and New York, as well as community activists, social workers, even a couple of Brown’s teachers.

It all leads up to the post-show discussion, when the actors are replaced by a panel of community representatives including, on opening night in New York, Michael Brown Sr., who spoke about the ongoing impact of his son’s death. Now when you hear Ferguson, he said, “you hear Michael Brown.”

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