On Saturday evening, people from all over Baltimore—some coming straight from the Women's March in Washington—filed into Coppin State University's James Weldon Johnson Auditorium, passing through the epicenter of the Baltimore Uprising to see acclaimed actors perform dramatic readings of an adapted version of Sophocles' 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy "Antigone."
This free production, titled "Antigone in Ferguson," starred "The Wire's" Sonja Sohn (of "The Wire" and "Luke Cage") as Antigone, a young woman whose two brothers have just died fighting on opposite sides in the Theban civil war. Paul Giamatti (of "John Adams" and "Cinderella Man") as Creon, the new King of Thebes who commands that the body of one brother, Eteocles, be honored, and the body of the other, Polyneices, will rot above the earth in public shame—evoking the body of Michael Brown left on a Ferguson, Mo. street for hours after he was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014.
Flanking Giamatti and Sohn on either end of the reading table were stage actors Marjolaine Goldsmith and Duane Foster playing multiple roles, including Goldsmith as Antigone's sister Ismene, who refuses to help Antigone defy Creon's rule in secretly burying Polyneices, and Foster as Haemon, Creon's son and Antigone's fiancé, who tries to talk sense into the power-blinded king without success when Creon condemns Antigone to death.
Presented by Coppin, the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, the PopTech Institute, and Outside the Wire—a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based "social impact theater company" also known as Theater of War—"Antigone in Ferguson" is a traveling production adapted by Outside the Wire co-founder and artistic director Bryan Doerries. In previous productions in St. Louis and New York, "Antigone in Ferguson" has drawn star power from other notable actors including Samira Wiley of "Orange is the New Black" and Reg E. Cathey of "The Wire" and "House of Cards."
But aside from the distinguished readers and Doerries' direction, the production is largely the work of members in the Ferguson community, featuring an original gospel score by Phil Woodmore, the director of the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department Choir. When Doerries introduced the play, he expressed the importance of engaging disparate groups in the Ferguson community following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, which inspired the creation of the production.
The performance, he said, also involved members of the faith community and activists. Actor Duane Foster, who sang as an impressive soloist in the choir in addition to reading, was at one point Michael Brown's drama teacher.
Doerries identified musicians in the accompanying band and some soloists in the choir as members of the St. Louis police force, though for the Baltimore performance the bulk of the singers were members of the One Love Alliance, a local choir. Filling the role of the chorus in Classical Greek theater, which traditionally provided both spoken and musical commentary as a moral voice to the action in the play, the choir performed both soaring and foot-stomping gospel numbers with Woodmore's lyrics projected on a screen at the back of the stage.
During the actors' dialogue, members of the choir frequently interjected with "m-hms" and even bitter mumbles of "yeah, alright Trump" when Giamatti's Creon conjured the voice of the similarly untested and frightening President of the United States.
Despite being limited to a chair, a table, and a script—a condensed and modernized translation of Sophocles' text—the actors also performed with heightened emotion: With flashes of Det. Kima Greggs, Sohn as Antigone ripped into Creon's injustice; Giamatti brought forward all the big-actor, red-faced tears as he lamented the suicides of his wife and son in the wake of his catastrophic missteps.
Doerries noted that while it was crucial for the play's development and performance to involve voices of the communities whose recent history reflects the play's themes—namely, Doerries says, "what happens when personal conviction and the law of the state clash"—the play's audiences should also be made up of those communities.
After bringing "Antigone in Ferguson" to St. Louis and New York and now Baltimore, Doerries intends to take the show to cities like Baton Rouge and Charlotte, centers of recent tragedy and protest against racism and police brutality.
"The audience that has skin in the game—and this [Baltimore] audience has skin in the game—knows more than we do about the play," he said.
So after each staging, Doerries invites members of the local community in the audience to take the stage and present their reactions to the play. In Baltimore, the panel included Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle founder and CEO Adam Jackson, artist Larry Poncho Brown, O'Malley-era Baltimore City Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, and Avis Ransom, a founding member of Baltimore Racial Justice Action. The panelists shared and discussed moments from the play that resonated with them.
Ransom cited Antigone's call to Creon, "What about justice?"
"We're seeking here in Baltimore City to have a new beginning, a new relationship with our police force and our community," she said. "I've heard lots of information about the cost of revamping our city's police force, but I've not heard much about repairing the damage that's been done in communities for decades. Individuals' lives have been ruined, families have been destroyed, communities have been decimated—tens of years of unconstitutional behavior. I don't at all want to cast any disparaging comments on our police department; I simply want to say the damage has been done, and 'what about justice?'"
Jackson and Hamm were both struck by Ismene's refusal to help her sister bury their brother. "I don't see the honor in disobeying the law," Goldsmith as Ismene said.
"When I was police commissioner," Hamm said, "it wasn't a law that I disobeyed; it was a strategy that the mayor had. It was called 'zero tolerance.' Terrible strategy. It was good in the beginning, left it on too long, and it really tore this city apart. And I stopped it. I broke the law—did a lot of that with Mayor O'Malley—because I had a unique feel for the people in this city and still do. I really saw myself as a guardian of this city and not an occupying army."
"A lot of people in Baltimore sit in the sidelines, talk about what we should be doing and what should be happening, but that these are current laws of the land, and you can't go into harm's way to invest in justice," Jackson said, admiring Antigone's fearlessness in the face of death. "We can't just be talking about what's the law of the land, especially in a country where it's based in white supremacy and racism."
Brown recalled Creon's rejection of his son's advice: "Shall a man of my age be taught by a man of yours?"
Brown encouraged the audience to listen to and invest in the city's youth, particularly through the arts, noting the emotional responses from the audience during the play.
"The arts is the best way to communicate the changes for tomorrow. And we just heard what they're getting ready to do with the arts," he said, in reference to the announcement from President Donald Trump's day-old administration that the National Endowment for the Arts would be eliminated. "So while you guys are rallying about what to do, if you're not protecting the arts in this city, then you're just talking smack."
The panel followed with responses from the audience, with speakers including Ganesha Martin, Chief of the Department of Justice Compliance and Accountability/External Affairs at the Baltimore Police Department; activist Kwame Rose; and artist and MacArthur fellow Joyce J. Scott, among others.
The final comment came from Anyah Lowe, a high school senior who played the titular role in the City College Drama Club's production of "Antigone." For Lowe, the most powerful moment in the play comes when Creon ultimately holds himself accountable for the tragedy in his city and family.
"We are all set in our ways or have a certain mental state that we have been built upon by institutionalization or oppression or privilege—because privilege has its effects, too," Lowe said. "We spend so much time trying to fix everything that's going on outside in the world and trying to be in this person's business or be in that person's business but we're not recognizing what's going on within ourselves. The destructive cycle continues….Creon being able to take that accountability and understanding where he went wrong I think is the first step to change that anyone can ever make."