Antigone in Ferguson

On Saturday 1/21/17, over half a million people gathered in Washington, DC for the Women’s March and hundreds of thousands more gathered in cities across the nation. Several members of my church family went to DC, making it known that whatever version of Christianity that is now in the White House is not in line with the promise of God’s love and justice for all people, all of whom are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I did not make it to the march, but I did go to a performance of Antigone in Ferguson in Baltimore. It was a collaboration between Theater of War productions, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, and local leaders.

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Before the performance, the organizer explained the genesis of the show–how St. Louis embraced the production and claimed this 2,500-year-old play as something relevant that speaks to their experiences today. After all, Antigone is a young woman who wants justice and proper remembrances for her brother that died in war and was painted as an enemy of the State by the new, irrational king who decreed that the body should be left unburied to rot.

Antigone becomes the mothers, daughters, sisters, and all those left behind when a black person is killed by police. Police officers, as enforcers of the law, carry the power of the State behind them and that is one among many reasons why this particular injustice is so hurtful. Michael Brown’s body was unmoved for four hours after he was killed.

Ismene is that well-meaning person who is saddened by the death of her brother, but will follow the law and the decrees of the king, even if that means not giving her brother a proper burial. She urges Antigone to follow the law, but then later when Antigone is receiving her punishment, she wants to be put to death as well as if she had a part in Antigone’s actions. Ismene is the late ally–the one who stays back in the moment and then later wants recognition for something she had no part in. But also, she feels powerless as a woman to defy the law like Antigone does. She fears the consequences.

Creon is the new king who is impulsive and stubborn, making rash decisions and refusing to listen to reason. He is the State and it is his power, his agenda, and his system that results in all the death by the end of the play. He’s the one who makes the law that Antigone’s brother not be buried and that anyone who disobeys this law will be punished. He clings to law at the expense of his humanity and his own family, which he does not realize until it’s too late. Creon is the oppressor who benefits from the system he creates and cannot see the devastation it causes. It’s only when he finally reclaims his humanity and casts himself away from Thebes that the city is freed from his impulsive, irrational ruling (i.e., the system is dismantled).

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The actors sat at a table on stage with a gospel choir behind them that sang the parts of the Chorus. They performed a dramatic reading of Antigone and afterward, four Baltimore community leaders took to the stage to share their immediate impressions of the performance as well as the work that they do for the city. Then, the floor was opened to a community discussion with the audience.

Some were police officers or justice department employees. Some were community advocates and organizers. Some were people of faith. Some were white people trying to navigate themselves through the discomfort that will always comes with these sorts of discussions–when white supremacy, racism, and white anxiety are named and analyzed.

One big difference that I have to note between these conversations in person and the ones on social media is the perceived tone. One of the many reasons why moving your feet is important, as John Lewis said at the Women’s March, is that you get a fuller picture of someone when you look in their face while hearing what they have to say and you hear their tone of voice. Too often, it seems like people are put off by discourse on social media because they’ll read a Twitter thread or Tumblr post by a black person (or any marginalized person) and hear in their head loud, screaming anger or even hatred. I’m certain that if the discussion were typed up word for word and posted on Tumblr or Facebook, some people would read an abrasive, hateful tone into it and may not even realize that that’s how they’re processing the information. That just has never been the tone I’ve heard when going to events like these in person. Passion and conviction? Absolutely. Frankness and sternness about naming realities and experiences that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear about? You bet. But never hatred.

So the feel of the evening was shared discomfort and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing. The refrain that stood out to me the most was go into your own communities, your own spheres of influence, and effect the changes to the system because there’s already black community leadership in the cities that is working and getting things done. They are just unseen, unreported, and often face barriers in getting grant money that other non-profits have access to.

Sonja Sohn, an actress from The Wire played Antigone. She also talked about the documentary she’s directing, For the Love of Baltimore. She said that when she first had the idea to make a film shortly after the Baltimore Uprising, she approached a few directors and producers she knew, two of whom were white and all of whom were male. She figured that since they had better connections and more experience, she needed to have one of them direct it. Instead, they all said that she had to do it, that she was the only person who could. Sohn explained that this is the sort of support and empowerment that’s needed–not for men and white people to lead and execute on a black woman’s idea, but for them to be the voices that build up and support what that black woman creates.

It’s not white people’s task to go in and create new structures to save whatever struggling area outside of our community that we come across. Instead, we have to listen to and support the leaders that are already there doing work and do our own work in our own spaces–work, school, church, every community that’s a part of our own daily lives.

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The community discussion largely centered on justice issues, but the performance itself contained some interesting theological themes. With a gospel choir playing the part of the Chorus, the Christianization of ancient Greek culture was more evident. The final song, performed after Creon exiles himself in the wake of his entire family committing suicide, declared, “I am covered by the blood of the Lamb.”

I found the juxtaposition strange at first–a praise song right after this man exiles himself as he’s laden with guilt for his actions? But that’s the classic dramatic narrative of salvation–hitting rock bottom and finally turning to God for redemption. Taken another way, it’s the Chorus of the city singing this song, so they’re praising God after having been liberated of this terrible leader. Yet who was the “lamb” that paved the way for Creon to reclaim his humanity? Antigone, her future husband, and Creon’s wife.

This begs the question, why do the oppressed have to die for the oppressors to realize the error of their ways? It’s a reality that this is what happens, but the outrage and concern for people should come while they’re still alive. The silver lining that fiction and art provides us at least lets us see this dynamic in action without a real person actually dying.

That’s the takeaway and the continuous challenge.

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