This piece was nothing I expected going in, and everything I could hope to see from alternative theater. What do I mean by alternative? Well, if the title isn’t enough to go by, it need only be said once that this show is intensely challenging and complex. Combining dance, spoken word, music, and fashion, Antigone Sr. pushes all sorts of boundaries, in style as well as in content.
The production used Sophocles’ legendary Greek tragedy as a platform, and the richness of Harlem ball culture as a springboard on that platform, propelling its cast of 5 male dancers into an epic excavation of contemporary racial, gender, and sexual issues. A central question served as the foundation: what might have occurred artistically had Vogue’ers of Harlem joined the early postmodern dance movement at the Judson Church?
Visually and textually, Antigone Sr. countered traditional performance style with a deconstructive mode. The back curtain was pulled aside at one corner to reveal the backstage trappings of the building. Whole sentences were shattered, reconstructed, or repeated. Questions of plot and story arc were left half-answered. The cast roamed around the stage out of costume before the performance began, waving to friends in the house. The laptop containing the musical accompaniment was passed around by the dancers during the show. This refreshing approach to theater was an enticing backdrop for the upfront discourse of the piece.
Creator Trajal Harrell, joining his cast as a vulnerable yet aggressive Antigone, performed a kind of alchemy in his latest installation in a series of ball/drag inspired pieces. His unlikely medley of styles and substances created a stirring and at times jarring milieu of modern/postmodern expression. His choices were bold and at times great risks in terms of audience reception, and to me, this seemed precisely the point.
Harrell pushed his audience right out of their comfort zone; some moments reflected Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, a practice based around shocking an audience into cartharsis. At several points throughout the production, the audience sat in total darkness, once while Harrell yelled a repetitive, fragmented monologue into a microphone. At others moments, the music and lights on the skeletal stage far surpassed comfortable levels, either becoming deafening and blinding, or barely noticeable, and forcing the audience to confront the boundaries of their own senses.
I found these moments to be as exciting as they were challenging: it is rare that a production can so completely capture bodily and mental attention in the way this show did. Between those sensory assaults, dancers climbing around and through the house seats, and the cheeky, commanding looks of the cast as they strutted across the stage’s paper runways, Antigone was delightfully engaging, a dynamic portrait of oppressed social groups.
This was itself an interesting facet of the production: while superficially the show seemed to focus on gay male culture, the text, musical choices, and the costuming also addressed the problems faced by women and by minority races. Like the drag culture it claimed heritage of, Antigone Sr. burlesqued society through its fashion display and commentary. As the dancers posed and sashayed, Antigone would call them out, judging them with parodical wit.
Women’s fashion was featured alongside men’s, and the surrounding dialogue called attention to the torments and triumphs of women in an oppressive Western cultural patriarchy. For instance, one monologue utilized famous phrases or titles that include the word “woman”, appropriating them as labels for the true existence of the female in a contemporary male-dominated world. Here, Harrell deftly addressed both women’s representation in the West, and the hyper-saturation of labeling and pop cultural importance in postmodern society.
Likewise, the choice to cast a racially and culturally diverse group of dancers was very resonant in the context of the piece. The cast, spanning from Czech to African-American, flung themselves into spotlights, bodies and faces contorted with expression of a struggle entirely unique to each of them. The small cast was in my opinion a masterstroke, as it sharpened an audience’s focus on the particulars of the solo dancer as an agent of emotion and cultural representation. I was never unaware of the correlation between the dancers’ cultural backgrounds and their emotional journeys.
The overt references to all of these social figures (gay man, woman, racial or ethnic minority or alien) also contributed to the deconstructive themes of the show: there was no subtext. Antigone Sr. stripped down the meaning of performative expression by confronting, or sometimes assaulting its audience. Although some sections of the piece indulged themselves a bit too long, I felt that its disruptive and thought-provoking (or thought-forcing) nature was overall a successful choice; it swung a floodlight onto the chaotic world that these roles exist in, a world that must be dismantled in order to be understood.
Sophocles’ original story appeared only referentially, a podium for the dancers’ bodies and mouths to speak about what Antigone means to them today. The motivation behind the use of this particular Greek tragedy, out of all the canonical legends, was very clear to me: Antigone, as an icon of rebellion, an oppressed creature fighting to the death for her righteous truth of humanity, is a powerful masthead for the oppressed of contemporary society. Antigone was one of the first to stand against all odds for the honor of her people, and if Harrell has his way, she will not be the last.