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Sophocles after Ferguson: Antigone in St. Louis, 2014

Timothy J. Moore

In October 2014, the Upstream Theater Company in St. Louis performed David Slavitt’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone.  Upstream Theater’s director, Philip Boehm, and his design crew deliberately chose not to mold their production in a way that referred explicitly to contemporary events.  Nevertheless, the events of August 2014 and after in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb just twelve miles from the theater where Antigone was performed, inevitably affected both Boehm’s and his colleagues’ decisions and the way audiences responded to the play.  Upstream Theater’s Antigone thus provides an important example of how modern performances of ancient drama can play a significant role in discourse about difficult contemporary issues.  This paper concentrates on two aspects of the production that most reverberated in St. Louis in 2014: the stage set and the role of Creon.

Antigone begins with a body lying exposed in a public place.  In St. Louis in October 2014 the play inevitably brought reminders of Ferguson two months before, where Michael Brown’s body lay on the street for several hours after his death at the hands of a policeman.  In a dimly lit prologue, Antigone poured dust on a body onstage.  Thereafter, Polyneices’ body was vividly, if symbolically, represented on the backdrop, which showed scenes of warriors in action.  At the front of the stage and center was a small area containing ritual objects. The entire stage was thus an area of negotiation between the strife shown on the backdrop and the sense of community represented by the ritual objects.  In the black box theater where the play was performed, stage center front was also the focal point of the audience.  The stage thus presented a visual parallel to the audience’s own attempt to place community over differences in the midst of the strife beyond the theater.  Actors took advantage of this visual reinforcement of the quest for community by moving forward and using the ritual objects at important moments of the play.

A few weeks before the opening of his Antigone, director Philip Boehm gave a paper entitled, “Should Sophocles’ Antigone Really Be Called Creon?”  Boehm’s title reflects his approach to the play, in which the character of Creon—and with it the play’s key questions surrounding authority and justice—was front and center.  The actor playing Creon relayed throughout a mesmerizing combination of self-assurance and bluff, and blocking was arranged such that when Creon was on stage he tended to be stage center, rebuffing other characters as they approached him from one side or the other.  Unlike most of the other characters, Creon never approached the ritual objects at the front of the stage.  The entire portrayal of Creon thus emphasized that for all his good intentions he, like many of the leaders who responded to events in Ferguson, never succeeds in producing the civic cohesion that he seeks. 

As “talk-back” discussions after performances in both its original venue and in a local prison revealed, these and other elements of Antigone’s performance drove home the relevance of the play and the issues it raises to its performance context in very troubling times.

Session/Panel Title:

Performance, Politics, Pedagogy

Session/Paper Number

13.2

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