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A play that speaks to Ferguson’s tragedy and lets the audience speak back

September 23, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
In the Greek tragedy “Antigone,” the title character is told that she cannot bury her brother, who has been killed. Echoes of the classical work rang out in 2014, when Michael Brown was shot by police and left dead in the street for hours. New York-based group Outside the Wire presents “Antigone in Ferguson,” a pertinent take on Sophocles that’s encouraging discussion. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It has been, as we have been discussing, a difficult week in Charlotte, where police and residents have clashed over the shooting death of a black man.

It comes in the same week that an officer was charged with manslaughter, as we have also been discussing, over that shooting in Tulsa.

But even amid the protests and tensions around the country, an unusual theater project is trying to help a community move forward.

RELATED: Away from Battle, Soldiers Find Relief in ‘Theater of War’

Jeffrey Brown went to Ferguson, Missouri, to see the efforts to heal.

ACTOR: Were you aware of my proclamation forbidding the body to be buried?

ACTRESS: Yes, I knew it was a crime.

ACTOR: And you still dared to break the law?

ACTRESS: I didn’t know your laws were more powerful than divine laws, Creon.

JEFFREY BROWN: In ancient Thebes, a clash between the state’s need for security and order and the conscience of an individual, as a dead body lies on the ground unburied.

But we are in modern-day Missouri, near Ferguson, where two years ago, 18-year-old Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours after he was shot and killed by a police officer, leading to violent clashes and days of protest and rioting.

A grand jury cleared officer Darren Wilson of criminal wrongdoing. But the U.S. Justice Department found a pattern of racial bias in a predominantly white police force in a predominately black city.

LT. LATRICIA ALLEN, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department: We talk about the racial disparity and all of that. It was just a populace waiting to boil over.

JEFFREY BROWN: We drove through the area where the shooting and rioting occurred with Lieutenant Latricia Allen of the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department. She was brought into Ferguson back then to help calm things down. Two years later, she told me, she can make arguments for both sides.

LT. LATRICIA ALLEN: My life is being a law enforcement person and being a mother, because nobody really knows how I feel. But what I do know is that a mother shouldn’t have to bury her child, period.

JEFFREY BROWN: She also says this of Ferguson and its aftermath:

LT. LATRICIA ALLEN: It’s the big F-word. It’s something we don’t even really talk about anymore. It’s something that occurred, and no one is proud of anything that happened. It’s not like we’re on — wearing a badge of honor, police officers one, the citizens zero, nothing like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, “Antigone in Ferguson,” a theater production, has brought Lieutenant Allen back here again, this time to sing.

Performances at the Wellspring Church and Normandy High School, where Michael Brown graduated months before his death, were presented by a New York-based group called Outside the Wire, best known for its so-called Theater of War productions aimed at helping military personnel deal with PTSD.

BRYAN DOERRIES, Co-Founder, Outside the Wire: It’s about holding a space, creating a space where truth can be told and they can be heard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Founder Bryan Doerries has expanded the subjects he addresses in his work, but kept the original format. Four prominent actors present a staged reading of an ancient Greek tragedy.

ACTOR: No woman will ever tell me what to do as long as I live.

JEFFREY BROWN: A group of experts or, here, community members representatives, including a friend of Michael Brown, and his former teacher respond to the issues raised.

DUANE FOSTER, Former teacher of Michael Brown: So many people look at the actual act of the shooting. People forget about the total blatant disrespect of that boy laying in the ground because people were trying to figure out what to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, most important, the audience of community members, people living amid the problem being tackled, engage in a discussion.

WOMAN: We, all over the country, have the same problems here as everywhere. We are at war with ourselves.

MAN: Where do we go as a society when we know what we do is wrong and we continue to do it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes, that can get heated.

LT. LATRICIA ALLEN: That’s the big elephant in the room, that we don’t want to talk about the murder rate. We don’t want to talk about black-on-black crime, because that gives us a black eye.

MAN: There is no such thing as black-on-black crime; 94 percent of all crimes committed by black men are — yes, are perpetrated by other black men, but, also — if you read the statistics, it also says that 84 percent of murders that are committed on white people are committed by white people.

JEFFREY BROWN: All of them connecting dots between the ancients and their experience and pain.

WOMAN: We collectively are the Greek chorus, and we speak for what democracy is and for what we want in our world.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Ferguson, Doerries chose Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone.”

BRYAN DOERRIES: So, the central question of this play, “Antigone,” is, what happens when everyone’s right or feels justified in what they’re doing?

We think about the fact that the protester in the street is right for feeling rage and betrayal and anger, for being devastated by incident after incident after incident that we keep hearing about in the news. And the police force is right to be afraid, because we live in this incredibly violent world, in which one only has a few milliseconds sometimes to make a decision that could change the rest of your life.

And so the play’s about stepping back from all that and acknowledging that we’re all human and we’re all fallible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Doerries found a local collaborator in Phil Woodmore, a choral teacher at a middle school who also heads singing groups for the Saint Louis Police Department and for his church.

PHIL WOODMORE, Composer, “Antigone in Ferguson”: I feel that the artistic value of what we’re doing breaks down a lot of barriers. It breaks down a lot of walls, and it breaks down a lot of things that put people in boxes, where they can be open, they can express themselves freely, and they can give maybe information or share things, personal stories that they might not have shared otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: The star power came from four actors, Gloria Reuben, Reg E. Cathey, Samira Wiley, and Glenn Davis, who’d flown in from various television and other projects specially for this one day of performances.

REG E. CATHEY, Actor: Take her away. She has said enough. Bury her alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cathey, known for his work on “House of Cards,” is a veteran performer of the Theater of War. This time, he played Creon, the king and uncle of Antigone, who, in trying to preserve the state, is also tearing it apart.

REG E. CATHEY: The family killing each other struck me really deeply, I guess because it’s only my sister and I. I have lost both my parents.

And that’s what we’re doing in America. America, if we’re one family, if we truly are e pluribus unum, we’re killing each other in a vile way.

SAMIRA WILEY, Actress: These people are doing wrong in the eyes of the gods.

JEFFREY BROWN: Samira Wiley is a newcomer to this type of performance. She played Antigone, and said her current work on “Orange Is the New Black” has a deep connection to events in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death.

SAMIRA WILEY: You are standing in front of people. You are looking at people who were in this young man’s class, people who were his educators. And what we do, at the end of the day, is fake. It’s — we’re acting.

But we can elicit real, emotional, human feelings from people. And one thing that Bryan Doerries tells — or told me was that it’s not so much about what we can give them, but what they can give us. And you can hear that in theory, but I really experienced that today.

REG E. CATHEY: And that last song, “I’m Covered,” which has multiple meanings of, I’m covered in the blood of the lamb, which, of course, is Jesus. But, sometimes, it sounded like they were singing, I’m covered in the blood of the land, which strikes you a whole different way.

Then you’re thinking, oh, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, which is the selfish part of being an actor, that you love it. We love killing the people.


REG E. CATHEY: But it’s even better when we all get to take a journey together. And that happened this afternoon.

JEFFREY BROWN: That song was written by Phil Woodmore and dedicated to Saint Louis law enforcement. Through art, a chance to be heard and perhaps, move forward. From Ferguson, Missouri, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

That song was written by Phil Woodmore and dedicated to Saint Louis law enforcement, through art, a chance to be heard and perhaps move forward.

From Ferguson, Missouri, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”