Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Man of theater visits De Pere with fresh impetus for ancient plays

Bryan Doerries at St. Norbert College_1519315107474.jpg.jpg

One of the highly influential people in theater today is walking our way.

Bryan Doerries, co-founder of Theater of War Productions and public artist in residence for New York City, is on campus at St. Norbert College.

Wednesday night, he presented a lecture in Walter Theater as part of the 2017-18 Killeen Chair of Theology and Philosophy lecture series. Topic: “Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.”

In a related event, St. Norbert College students will present a staged reading of Doerries’ translation of “Oedipus the King” at 6:30 p.m. today, Thursday, Feb. 22, in Dudley Birder Hall on campus. Registration: snc.edu/tickets/. Doerries will be present and answer questions after the performance. (Doerries offered a hint in his lecture about his take on the story: “Oedipus knew.”)

Wednesday’s talk was engaging – high level and yet accessible. It revealed that “highly influential” role Doerries has taken.

Doerries has developed avenues to ignite audiences to get a grip on dilemmas.

The catalysts are Greek plays that are 2,500 (or so) years old.

In the first wave of activity, a portion of your federal tax money has gone into trying to help stave the tide of suicides among active military personnel and veterans.

The project called “Theater of War” has seen hundreds of performances, each involving audience interaction inspired by the play “Ajax” written by Sophocles.

It is one thing to for actors to put on a play, take bows and then leave. These presentations include an actor/facilitator who connects with the audience – people dealing with the difficulties the play delved centuries ago but still at play today.

Among the hundreds of performances was a set that in 2017 reached all the military bases in South Korea. Among the professional actors in that series was Green Bay area native (West De Pere High School, class of 1985) Chris Henry Coffey, who has performed on Broadway. Coffey called the experience life changing. More on his experience is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-ancient-play-brought-to-new-fronts/749910553.

After the “Ajax”-driven performances rippled and found tremendous impact, Doerries was presented a challenge: Create a project that would apply to the volatility of Ferguson, Missouri. His solution took a while. He explained what happened in his Wednesday lecture, excerpted here:

“That coming together, shoulder to shoulder, as a community to face the darkest aspects of what it means to be human could be a joyful experience, one that can generate affiliate connections – camaraderie, even morale. What I’ve seen night after night in the faces of audience members to perform plays by Sophocles and other ancient authors for audiences that have experienced trauma and loss is a palpable sense of relief to discover that they are not alone, not alone in their communities, not alone across the country and the world and, most critically, not alone across time. That’s the public health message of ancient Greek tragedy: You are not alone across time.

“In the beginning, I went searching for audiences that by virtue of their life experiences respond directly and powerfully to these plays but in recent years new audiences began seeking me and my company that were apt to ask, ‘Do you know a play that could help us deal with what we’ve been through?’ Each performance has led to the next, and now 20 projects that are active around the world. Each community has opened doors to others to extend reason to work like an infinite series of presenters circles all rippling out from the same point of impact.

“After the death of Michael Brown, I received such a call… On the afternoon of Aug. 9, 2014, an unarmed, 18-year-old African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, by a 28-year-old white police officer named Darren Wilson. At first, the community responded peacefully with vigils and prayers… The circumstances surrounding the shooting were disputed and tensions between the African American community and the police ran extremely high. However, after Ferguson police left Michael Brown’s body in the street for several hours baking in the summer heat, the city (unaudible) its unrest and violence. Outrage began to spread, not just about the shooting but about the desecration of Michael Brown’s body. In the wake of the violent unrest, which stretched out for months and years, radiating out of Ferguson into other communities throughout the United States that have experience police violence and also violent response from the community, I received a phone call from a friend in St. Louis who attended church were Michael Brown’s memorial service took place…  (A woman) wondered if there might be an ancient tragedy about Ferguson and other communities like that trying to heal. Frankly, I was so intimidated by her question and the depth of the racial tensions in the community that took over a year to come back with a proposed play, Sophocles’ ‘Antigone.’

“There are theories that ancient Greek drama was a form of training for late adolescents – 19 year olds, called the (inaudible) were matriculated into military service and civic participation. That’s why there are so many of these plays that have survived from the ancient world that feature teenagers like Antigone… in impossible ethical situations for which there are no right or easy answers only grayness and ambiguity and by which they will be haunted for the rest of their lives no what they do. Specifically, we’re gathering these teenagers to say, ‘Welcome to adult life.’ Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ the play is about a body that’s left in the streets of archaic Thebes, which, much like Ferguson, sets off a series of explosive events resulting in violence, civil unrest and disintegration of social order. Antigone is a teenage girl who wishes to bury her brother, Polyneices, who recently died in a brutal civil war. Creon, the newly invested king, ruled that Polyneices’ body must lay above the earth and anyone breaking this law will be put to death. Antigone ultimately and intentionally defies the edict, covering her brother’s body with dirt and publicly declaring her Thebes to a higher law, one that transcends that of the state, the law of love. Creon is then forced by his own political rhetoric by the fragile social order he had barely begun to establish since the civil war making an example of his niece by sentencing to death. In the process of following his own decree, Creon eases everything – his son, his political office, the social order he struggled so hard to defend. At its core ‘Antigone’ is a play about what happens when two systems of justice – the sacred law of family and family and the law of the state – clash. It’s also a play, like all of Sophocles’ plays are, about what happens when everyone feels justified and right and violence is going to ensue. Someone is going to die, or be sacrificed because of it.

“When I first got the idea of setting ‘Antigone’ in Ferguson, it was at best without form. But as I began to pursue the project, all the pieces began falling into place out of necessity and serendipity. First we decided our project, unlike our others, needed the authentic collaboration of the community. The one that set the course of ‘Antigone,’ the gospel music, would have to be performed by a local choir. A gospel choir should not just be composed of local community members on one side of the issue and not represent a variety of voices from disparate and sometimes divided backgrounds. Was there a police choir in St. Louis that we could engage to join a church choir to bring together oppositional voices in song? In fact … St. Louis has a police choir…. We learned that that one was led by a dynamic local composer/teacher/musician named Phil Woodmore. I tracked down Phil… After five minutes of talking, it was apparent Phil was our man. I asked him if he would compose what would amount to be about 45 minutes of original music in 30 days. He accepted the challenge, though I later learned he never composed anything of that length or scale….

“On Sept. 15, 2016, we arrived in Ferguson with the actors Reg E. Cathey, Samira Wiley, Gloria Reuben and Glenn Davis. We performed ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ at Normandy High school, the school that Michael Brown attended before he was killed, accompanied by a 35-person choir composed of police officers, their spouses, family members, friends, local citizens, activists, Michael Brown’s middle school drama teacher… Following the performance, we moved on to Wellspring Church, the seat of social activism and calls for dialogue for unity in the heart of Ferguson, where we presented two more performances back to back. To say that these performances exceeded my wildest dreams is an understatement. It was by far the most important day of my career and those of us who were present will all remember why. Four things happened that day which contributed to the success of the production and helped me to understand Greek tragedy on a whole other level….

“One. The community took full ownership of the play. We arrived in Ferguson to T-shirts, signage, motivated volunteers, galvanized community members, local murals. One of my fears was a white man from Brooklyn bring ‘Antigone to Ferguson’ to St. Louis is we would be seen as appropriated by culture but what resulted is black culture appropriated Greek culture in search of something that would never happen otherwise.

“Two. About halfway through the first performance, the choir became a true Greek chorus and began vocalizing responses to the actors who were reading the play, in turn causing the audience to vocalize their responses … making the production come alive bringing back participatory civic roots that of ancient Greek drama….

“Three. Anyone who attended the performance can tell you these weren’t simply civic exercises. This was a spiritual experience… There were rapturous moments at the end of songs when several of the choir members took to the aisles in praise of their God in religious ecstasy, crying into their handkerchiefs, raising their hands in the air, shaking on the ground, testifying to the presence of the Holy Spirit, speaking to the room. As watched this unfold, even participating in it, it occurred to me this was as close to the god Dionysus, the ancient god of theater, ecstasy and boundary dissolution as I would ever get in America.

“(Four). The response from the audience was beyond all expectation. The diversity of people and perspectives came from all over St. Louis to be part of the discussion… The discussion ranged from interrogation to things like black-on-black crime, prophetic monologues about truth delivered by a woman who seemed like the incarnation of Tiresias (the blind prophet) himself…. On a profound personal level, the project demonstrated the ability to break down walls…”

Bryan Doerries also spoke in depth on the arrival of the concept, which is causing a large ripple he referred to.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

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