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The story of Sophocles’s Antigone never gets old. Or rather, it isn’t allowed to because it’s being constantly refreshed, brought back to our waking consciousness by those writers, directors, and artists who update her story by placing it in new political contexts.
I first read the play in college, and was staggered by how the conversation generated by that drama was inexhaustible. It’s seemingly a simple story: King Creon decrees that Polynices, who attacked his city, should be left to rot and not buried with the proper rites, but his sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order out of a sense of love and obligation to her brother. Yet, this has so many legs: key among them, loyalty to one’s family versus loyalty to the state, which is complicated by the very real threat of what Robert Merton described as anomie or “normlessness,” a circumstance the state wants to guard against by enforcing adherence to its laws and customs. Another opposition in the play is one’s personal sense of ethical obligation versus the state’s laws — which US history demonstrates to be blatantly unethical at times. And then there is the subtle manipulation of the plot which presents forced choices as normative, thus making suicide and martyrdom seem like almost reasonable responses.
Carrie Mae Weems has brought those undying themes to new life with her work Past Tense, which combines song, text, reading, and projected video. The seeds of the work were sown in Weems’s Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a multimedia performance that premiered in June of this year at the Spoleto Festival USA. Past Tense was similarly starkly presented at the Onassis Cultural Center, as part of its arts festival that is now in its second year. The performance has that modernist aesthetic of clean, spare staging: just the singers on a small, raised platform and Weems at a clear, Lucite lectern, all of them awash in blue light. The singers who accompany Weems — acting as an updated Greek chorus — Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imanin Uzuri, present a visually stark tableau: they are dressed in either pure white or indomitable black; one of the singers wears both: a black dress with a long white shawl covering her hair.
Why so stark a presentation? Perhaps because Carrie Mae Weems is using the lens of race and its relationship to state authority through which to reinterpret Antigone. The visuals intimate to the audience that the stakes are extremely high: people will die when we get the careful equilibrium between individual will and state authority wrong.
The singer in white begins the piece by intoning, “Here I am again; how did I get here? Played by all the rules then they changed.” The visuals projected on the screen behind her — a black man running with an ungainly gait, Bison being hunted until they fall over a precipice — convey the risk in the encounter between authority figures and citizens who are fervent in their sense of morality. Then we get to the nitty gritty: images of Alton Sterling being wrestled to the ground and shot dead by two police officers in Louisiana; Laquan McDonald walking away from Chicago police and yet being shot down like a dog; Philando Castile’s bulging, broken arm in tatters over his dying body after having been shot multiple times by a police officer; Eric Garner being brought low by a small contingent of law enforcement.
Weems read a text, and though her presence is powerful and the staging arresting, the setting is the lobby of a corporate building with acoustics that make most of her words wash away into vaguely aquatic sounds. Later on, seeing a video of the event, I hear that she says, “We ask you, our audience for permission to bury many of our dead, to bury our brothers.” This is the essence of the performance. It is commemorative and elegiac, partly intoned in mourning and partly in pride of what these men were and what they still represent: lives of unknown potential quashed by the state that ostensibly exists to protect them.
It was a wise decision to ask Carrie Mae Weems to carry forward the conversations precipitated by Antigone at this festival that declares its investment in promoting Hellenic culture. And it seems that indeed one way for that culture to have purchase in contemporary issues is to join hands with current makers who engage these ancient dramas at the level of metaphor. That is how Antigone continues to speak to us. In that quest for survival is where we find common cause. As Weems says during her performance, “Antigone, of course, is sent to her doom, but I want to live.”
The 2016 Onassis Festival of Arts and Ideas, under the banner “Antigone Now,” took place at the Onassis Cultural Center (645 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) October 13–16. It featured live performances, as well as site-specific installations that will remain through December 15.