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Antigones in New York

Tracie Thoms from <i>The Antigone Project</i>.
Tracie Thoms from The Antigone Project.

Don’t you think that there is an Antigone spirit in the air? As a new New Yorker with Greek roots and Balkan branches, I feel it. Yet I’ve always believed that a specific political situation resurrects the classic story/text/character that resonates best with the current social context. In Romania, during the communist regime, for instance, we had lots of Hamlets, sunk in their subtext, philosophically declaiming that something was rotten in the country. It was a Hamlet-time of subtle reflective opposition to the totalitarian system. Our Antigone-time would come while “surfing” the ruins of the Berlin Wall. And now here it is again, bold and fresh and suddenly in New York: an electoral moment when artists feel the need to act/speak out as citizens.

The Antigone Project opens October 12th at The Women’s Project and Productions; it is the theater company’s first offering under the new artistic direction of Loretta Greco, and features new plays by exciting playwrights Karen Hartman (Gum), Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel), Caridad Svich (Booth Variations), Tanya Barfield (The Houdini Act) and Chiori Miyagawa (Broken Morning).

Originally co-conceived by Miyagawa and director Sabrina Peck, for their theater company Crossing Jamaica Avenue, the “assignment” for the writers was to write a 15-minute play in response to the Patriot Act, the only restriction being that it have a character named Antigone in it. “We wanted a project that provided an opportunity for women playwrights to respond to the current erosion of civil rights,” explains Miyagawa.

So why Antigone? And what in the classics can help us reimagine and respond to contemporary issues?

“I’m interested in writing plays that cover a large span of time, often involving moments of history collapsing or repeating, that combine ordinary dialogue and poetic language, realistic and surreal moments,” says Chiori. “The classics offer great opportunities to be political, socially relevant, and poetic at the same time.”

I’m thinking of my own rewriting (with Richard Schechner) of the Oedipus story from Yokasta’s perspective. My choice was to create a multiple character: four Yokastas at different ages, knowing parts of the story, like smaller Russian dolls hidden inside the big one—the conceptual persona. Each Yokasta had her own way of penetrating our world: pop culture, the internet world, domestic dailyness (Yokasta—the kitchen robot), TV talk-shows, and even the Star Wars (Yokasta—the librarian). Each Yokasta represented a truth, and by this staging we set out to reveal the multiplicity of Truths.

But let’s get back to Antigone and her multiple embodiments. She is, after all, merely a future innocent baby in her mom’s womb in YokastaS.

I ask Chiori about her approach in reconfiguring the old stories/myths. She doesn’t have one, unless that is to “take the essence of my inspiration, and run with it.” She doesn’t try to keep close to the original: “Sometimes I see myself in a classical character; often I sympathize with the women in classical settings; other times I’m just in search for an insight into humanity.”

In Red Again, Antigone and Haemon re-meet in the underworld after both are dead. A meditative in-love Haemon follows the enraged Antigone in her (arguably) last journey. There is an “Orpheus-Euridice” flavor to Chiori’s Antigone, except that her heroine has the strength and the drive of a contemporary activist determined to change a world full of injustices. Her humorous introspective nature makes the pill easier to swallow. From Red Again:

(Disoriented) Harold. Where are we?

The underworld, I assume.

The underworld. Then you followed me here.

It was my destiny.

We didn’t say good bye, did we?

I would not have expected anything so sentimental from you, Antigone.

You could have lived.

I didn’t.

I’m sorry.

For what?

For bringing tragedy into your life. But I had to do what I did. Something colossal went wrong and it was changing the composition of human decency. The rich grew greedier and greedier with suspicion and destruction and the poor stood mute. Trees were cut down, animals slaughtered, rivers polluted. People began to disappear. I had to bury my brother’s corpse. I couldn’t just let him disappear. He was my last brother.

I know. I don’t mind tragedy. You did the right thing.

Karen Hartman’s Hang Ten takes place on a beach where Antigone and Ismene—both in their 30s—watch young surfers trying to reach their dreams of “riding water.” The metaphor is fleshy and palpable in Karen’s play, and the language is arresting. Creon’s son, one of the surfers who make it to the beach (while others just disappear into the waves), proposes to Antigone, as he loves bold older women with rebellious and fierce, but still domestic, personality.

The playwright elaborates on her vision:

Antigone has a level of moral clarity which, in my opinion, belongs to the very young or the slightly deranged. She is certain she is right. I love that. I question that.”

“I think Creon’s point is good,” she continues. “If society is governed only by the heart, by personal ties, even by spiritual beliefs, then what is the role of law? I think Ismene’s position is valid too—without survival, what is victory? Yet Antigone is compelling. Her dark side is the suicide bomber, the innocent radical dissident. So I wonder, how would Antigone grow up? Creon’s beliefs change. Could Antigone’s beliefs change?”

Another face of Antigone has popped into our gallery: the “terrorist.” It is interesting how a different system of reference can alternately make someone a “hero” or a “criminal.” Who has the right to judge who’s who?—A rhetorical question to be added to the museum of questions meant only to be asked.

Caridad Svich, who wrote Antigone Arkhe for the project, is one of the experts in reconfiguring the classics. Her Iphigenia Crash Land Falls...(a rave fable) and Twelve Ophelias are wonderfully poetic and dramatic reinventions of the well-known narratives. Caridad’s work in devised-theatre is fascinating, challenging and envelope-pushing. In Antigone Arkhe, she animates a double character: the historical Antigone and the digital Antigone, who complete each other in revealing the story. The device used for (literally) resurrecting Antigone is an archive where records are kept. Caridad’s text can be easily seen in a multimedia staging, a perfect way of conveying the multiple layers of meaning that the old story has gained while traveling through History.

“The classic myths and stories appeal to me because of their elemental structures and the profound complexity of emotions conveyed within elegant, almost pristine foundations of theatrical architecture,” explains Caridad. “I’m moved by these old stories and also angered by many of them. Often it is my anger or confusion at the fates of characters in these stories that compel me to ‘rewrite’ them.”

When Chiori approached her with The Antigone Project, “I suddenly began to think about Antigone as a historical character, as someone we have lived with for centuries,” confesses Caridad, “and of how indeed we perceive history, time and memory through a character who was once not a mythic figure but simply a woman in a very charged situation. I began to think about archival memory and how the archive lives within us and outside of us, and how women view themselves at one time or another as Antigones.”

A fragment from Antigone Arkhe:

First second

Third second

Slow torque…

And the lights beam in my eyes

What’s your story, Antigone?

And a fire blazes and sirens sound, and I crawl along the river lit by the moon.

In the blur of history

In the chaos of memory

Words are broken


Heard anew

In Medallion, by Tanya Barfield, Antoinette, a working-class black woman, shows up in the office of General Carlton. The year is 1919. Her brother served in New York’s 369th National Guard Regiment and he died at Champagne-Marne. As in the original narrative, Antoinette-Antigone claims her brother’s body—actually a metonymic “purple heart,” the medal he deserved but couldn’t be attributed to the “Negroes.” Tanya’s play makes a strong and clear point, reminding us of the African-Americans who died for the USA without being acknowledged as heroes.

A different tone is set up by the author of award-winning Intimate Apparel and Crumbs from the Table of Joy. Lynn Nottage has chosen to give Antigone the human quality of a woman who thinks of love and life in the midst of a trial with contemporary resonance. She explains her inspiration for the piece: “As I was in the process of re-reading Antigone and thinking about how I would approach the material, I happened upon the highly publicized case of Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death for committing adultery in the region of Northern Nigeria governed by Islamic Sharia Law. I became interested in the moment in a woman’s life when a very personal and passionate act becomes political, thus thrusting her into the role of an accidental activist.”

Without explicitly pointing out the character’s brave act of insubordination, in A Stone’s Throw, Lynn manages to masterfully create an Antigone of flesh and blood, whose last suitor will be the polite and timid Death:

Well, I won’t let you will die for a man who could offer you no dowry.

Issie, he carried my basket home from the cross road.

This man saw me struggling and

carried a mule’s load of groundnuts without knowing my name.

Asked for nothing, other than I walk by his side.

He’d seen me in the marketplace, and remembered what I wore on every Friday.

Even the pattern of that purple gelee cut from mother’s wedding shawl.

He bought nuts from only me, though you know I overcharge.

But he liked the way I roasted them. The salt nice, he say. And he meant it.

He’s from the village on the river side of the fork.

And you know, I’ve never been beyond the rotting Bantung tree, I told him this.

And he described every inch of the road leading to his home. It that different and that similar to ours.

He said I’d see his village as a bride.

I’ll be carried to his mother’s door in a four-door taxi. A taxi with cool air and a radio.

I scolded him for making promises to a stranger.

Then he propped my basket on his right shoulder without flinching.

“Let me carry it,” he said. “You, miss, will enjoy the walk home.”

Issie, I walk that road everyday, but then walked it for the first time.

I told you not to—

Yes, I know I shouldn’t have let him carry the basket,

But, how many times have I walked that road alone.

The five Antigones brought to life by the Women’s Project and Productions’ season-opening show succeed in portraying a fresh and complex “modern woman” who is not afraid of her convictions. Different and surprising, the Antigone-characters imagined by the five playwrights are compelling representations of our need and freedom to question authority, to stand up for our beliefs and to accept the consequences of our acts. It is a necessary production that should be seen by everyone who dares to say “no” and ask “why?”

The Antigone Project opens October 12th at The Women’s Project and Productions, 424 West 55th Street (9th/10th Aves.)

For more info:


Saviana Stanescu


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2004

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