2015’s Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee, transplants Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, where the title character’s sex strike becomes a protest against gang violence in the neighborhood. The same year, Xtigone, written by Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley and directed by Rhodessa Jones, founder of the Medea Project, premiered with the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco. Xtigone is another meditation on gun violence and community action: the title character, called Tigs, leads a protest after her brothers, two gang leaders attempting to negotiate a cease-fire, are killed in a drive-by shooting. What is it about these ancient texts that make such an attractive mode of storytelling about gun violence?
In a reversal of Sophocles’ original, Xtigone’s Creon analogue, named Marcellus, gives orders to bury the bodies and move on. Tigs, on the other hand, wants to leave one brother unburied in order to expose the truth about the cycle of profit that keeps flooding the neighborhood with firearms. Using Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral as a touchstone, Tigs argues that the stark visual is necessary to force the powers that be to address the underlying causes of gun violence in her community rather than continuing to ‘bury’ the truth. In Chi-Raq, Lysistrata and her allies capture a military armory to draw attention to both their sex strike and the systemic violence that fuels gang warfare. When finally the two groups are able to broker a peace, the resolution comes with a commitment to fund trauma centers and an acceptance of responsibility for past violence.
To understand why both works found inspiration in ancient Greece for stories about guns on Chicago’s South Side, we could dissect the ancient context and the Aristotelian emotional structure of tragedy and apply it to audiences processing the trauma of sustained violence. But I propose working from the other end: what is it about Chicago in 2015 that resonated so strongly with these plays from ancient Greece? Through their language and staging, both works convey a weariness of the seemingly never-ending gang conflicts and the sheer scale of the problem: even if at times heavy-handed, the source material does lend a sense of timelessness. Likewise, each work illustrates that movement’s figurehead is not enough, pointing the viewer forward and invoking the Chicago community’s responsibility to take care of each other in order to solve their crisis. In all these respects, one finds a parallel in Greek drama.
Like the institution of tragedy in fifth-century Athens, which allowed citizens to reflect upon their political actions and imagine different outcomes, both Chi-Raq and Xtigone serve as calls to action: the community must reckon with the systems that enable gun violence, learn how to hold governments accountable, and harness the cultural cachet of Greek drama to spread the message. The challenge of fitting one’s message around an existing storyline is not seamlessly met in either case, but the rewards are so compelling that two writers chose it to take on one of Chicago’s biggest public health crises.
Ancient Theater in Chicagoland