Classical Theatre of Harlem’s ‘Antigone’ draws parallels to today

Linda Armstrong | 7/26/2018, 10:41 a.m.
Genius, brilliance, startling political relevancy are what I experienced at Harlem’s Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey Park as I ...
Dancer JoVonna Parks and Ty Jones as Creon Richard Termine photo

Genius, brilliance, startling political relevancy are what I experienced at Harlem’s Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey Park as I watched the Classical Theatre of Harlem perform Sophocles’ “Antigone,” in a production inspired by Paul Roche’s adaptation. CTH performs free Shakespeare in the Park every year.

This production is the story of King Cleon and his niece Antigone, who he ends up sentencing to death. Creon, a cruel leader, decides an unjust and horrific penalty for her brother Polyneis’ corpse and she defies him, standing up for what is right for her brother’s sake. She and her sister Ismene have lost everyone they love to nontraditional suicides and murder, and just when you thought their lot in life couldn’t get any worse, in steps Creon with an unfair edict on the fate of Polyneis’ dead body.

The backdrop for this classic tragedy is that the people of Thebes have been fighting a bloody war in which many have been killed, and now that war has ended. As you wait for “Antigone” to begin, your eyes are greeted by a chilling sight onstage. The graphic set design of Christopher Swader and Justin Swader bears witness to the pain that the people of Thebes have suffered, while also taking a page out of our world today. There are memorials for the dead all over the stage, with flowers, deflating balloons and burning prayer candles. There are powerful written messages among the memorials, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop Killing Our Sons,” “There Comes a Time When Silence Is Betrayal” and “We Will Not Forget.” High above the set, scrolling words give the audience a summary of what has happened thus far: the war is over, Oedipus’ sons have died by each other’s hand, hundreds are missing, thousands are displaced. “Citizens of Thebes find hope in new leadership—Creon to speak of policy changes; peace declared.”

Once the play begins, the people of Thebes are slowly coming out to mourn their dead at the memorials. We immediately find out that Antigone has heard the decree of Cleon that her brother Polyneis’ body not be buried because the king considered him a traitor to the people of Thebes. Antigone is determined to not let her brother be disgraced in this way and vows to bury him and do things by Greek tradition, even if it means her death. The people of Thebes feel that Cleon’s judgement on Polyneis is too harsh, but no one is willing to take a stand. They also feel his judgement of death for Antigone is wrong. The king’s son Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone, tells the king that the people are saying his punishment is unjust. The king turns against his son. Haemon refuses to look at his father and leaves. His queen, Eurydice, also tells him that his edict is wrong. Then the prophet Teiresias tries to warn him that what he has done is wrong. When he stays determined on his course of action, Teiresias brings a curse down on Creon’s house. (Does Creon’s cruelty, stubbornness and the cause of people suffering remind you of anyone? He also won’t listen to reason no matter who speaks to him and takes any disagreement as disrespect.)