Saturday, March 5, 2011

The K.C. Four: Xtigone

This post and the following post are about the two original plays seen at HSU in mid-February as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. They are slightly longer versions than published in my Stage Matters column last week in the North Coast Journal. One of them is in fact shorter in the Journal than I’d planned. I will publish here the paragraph that was cut, and an explanation, early next week. Also a kind of introduction, explaining how these four plays came to the Van Duzer stage as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
It was not the production selected to be considered for presentation at the Kennedy Center in April. But in my view it was the most significant of the four productions, and one of the most significant to be produced on the North Coast in years: Xtigone, a re-telling of the Antigone myth (and the Sophocles play) to address urban gun violence, by Chicago playwright and actor Nambi E. Kelley, presented here by California State University—East Bay.

“This play is my response to the gunshots I hear outside my window,” Kelley wrote to me in an email, “and is for the children I see hanging in the streets with guns in their back pockets with no one stopping them from hurting themselves and each other.”

At the same time that Kelley was confronting such issues in Chicago, East Bay director Darryl V. Jones wanted to address gun violence against youth in the Bay Area. L. Peter Callendar, Artistic Director of the African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, brought the two together, resulting in this production of Xtigone.

The play’s future already includes a staged reading at LaMaMa in New York (with the playwright playing Xtigone), and a full production in the fall by the African American Shakespeare Company. Though essentially a workshop production, the East Bay staging was finished enough to be judged as one of the four best college shows in the 9-state region this year.

I understood the story to be this: Marcellus (Ray Holston III) is the new mayor of Chicago, but his two nephews, each the head of a rival gang, are gunned down just as they were ending their violence at his behest. It turns out that Marcellus himself arranged the hit. His financial support comes from those who profit from guns. Tigs--the Antigone figure (Chalia La Tour)-- sister to one of the nephews, defies Marcellus and causes a community uproar. Marcellus condemns her to a living death, but when his reign and his family is threatened he relents, though too late to prevent a series of tragic consequences. The chorus implores him to “Listen to the people.”

Why address this topic using Antigone? “Because to me it is a play about a single voice affecting change, and about how revolution comes at the hands of the young,” Kelley responded. “I believe our children in this country, certainly in my city, are in a war, and the people who are supposed to protect them, don't.”

The rapid first act of the East Bay production revealed an idea whose time has come—the natural affinity of classical verse with hip hop rhythms and rap rhyming. Even when the words went by me, students around me were responding to them. (Tommy Shepherd contributed original music and sound.) Another impressive element was the integration of dance into the drama, choreographed by Laura Elaine Ellis.

There was a central set that suggested Greek theatre, with tall, narrow screens behind it that effectively projected images of the city. Three tall platforms in the back were home to the singers and dancers of a Greek chorus. After the gun murders there was a particularly haunting moment when the female chorus voices became sirens, wailing like the approaching police and emergency vehicles, while retaining the weary sound of repeated human pain.

The pace slowed in the second act, as the tragic story unwound. Bay Area star Donald Lacy as the seer had one of several tasty acting moments. Apart from technical mishaps, there were issues of clarity in presentation and story. But the energy and focus on stage was electric. It was an exciting event, with great potential.

No comments: