Let the Living Unbury Their Dead (Xtigone closes Sunday, March 8, 2015)
Xtigone, playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s treatment or reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone raises issues not easily ignored on International Women’s Day 2015 and the 50th Anniversary weekend of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. Set in Chicago, the First Family’s hometown, Lorraine Hansberry’s literal stomping ground along with notables: Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, The Art Ensemble, the AACM and so many more – DuSable, anyone (smile), Black Classics Press, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, Nobel Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple . . . Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s Black Prophetic Justice, Richard Wright, a Native Son. . . .
Chicago is also one of America’s most bloody cities. It rains red there. Remember the child who marched in the inaugural parade two years ago who was killed just a week later? She survived DC, but not Chi Town.
In the classic story, Antigone wants to bury her brother and when she disobeys her uncle, she is killed. In Kelley’s tale, Tig unburies the dead, because she believes the killing will not stop until the cover-up ceases. It is a time of war, then and now. In actress Ryan Nicole Austin’s able hands Tigs takes on her Uncle Marcellus (Dwight Dean Mahabir), who is also City Mayor, and her Aunt Fay (Jasmine Strange). Even her sister, Izzy (Tavia Percia) does not support her sister’s challenge.
All alone except for Mama Goddess, Tigs feels compelled—driven to complete the work her brother E-Mem), started. The Disciples Gang Leader (actor AeJay Mitchell) was trying to uncover the source of the weapons in his community and the trail was leading him to City Hall. As E-Mem called his uncle out, he simultaneously placed the blame for the deaths in the leader’s hands. Tigs not only unburied E-Mem, after Uncle Marcellus performs the rites, she has everyone in Chicago’s effected communities bring their dead to City Hall too. There are bodies everywhere – one could reach out, just lean forward a bit (from front row theatre seats) to touch a corpse.
Yes, it got a bit creepy, but that was the (unstated) intent. Gun violence is epidemic in Chicago and other American cities. It is an illness, a social infection worse than AIDS. The dead cannot rest; AeJay Mitchell’s E-mem and to a lesser degree, rival gang leader, Drew Watkins’s Ernesto is similarly disturbed. Who killed them before peace was secured? E-mem haunts his city; he talks to his sister; appears to his uncle— He will not lie still; his commitment is cut short, but with Tigs he has a chance to continue. Tigs inherits her dead sibling, E-Mem’s work. In Dagara or West African culture, it is expected when a young person dies that the living sibling celebrate his life. E-mem leaves so much unfinished for Tigs, who in turn leads a double life.
Eventually the dead sibling relieves the living person of such responsibility, but only after the earthly tasks are done. AeJay Mitchell’s character is a driving presence in Tigs’s life. He is always on stage—he is not a passive ghost. There is too much at stake and he knows this, even if Tigs does not initially. The work E-Mem, then Tigs do, mirrors that of Dr. Joe Marshall at Alive and Free in San Francisco. E-Mem’s and fellow gang leader, Ernesto’s collective goal is thwarted in a town where the mayor’s wife is selling souls for cash. How can a truce keep citizens alive and free when body counts equal wealth? The Latin Kings and Disciples leadership truce only temporarily interrupts, yet does not stop, the war machine. They do not operate the machine which prints money on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens. Fay is so deep in the game we see dirt raining on the two, Chicago’s first lady and her unsuspecting husband. She sells her soul without reading the fine print. Faye’s temporary fame ends tragically when she opens the attaché case for everyone to see the corpses, dead bodies (skulls, amputated hands . . . blood money). Chicago’s guns and its violence are interchangeable with Liberian (etc.) conflict diamonds. The enemy keeps us fighting worldwide so it can take the spoils.
Dirt rains on Marsellus as Faye screams.
There are so many guns on stage, so many dead-walking or about-to-be-dead children walking that the heaviness of the work rivets a person to her seat. I know the first time I saw the play, there was no intermission and I could barely move when the curtain fell. The added intermission, while powerful, weakened Xtigone’s intensity.
The potency dissipates, like a cloud pregnant with rain evaporates in the sunshine. I am not sure if that is a good thing. Did I miss the showers? Was I happy to leave damp, yet dry? Are we let off the hook? Some patrons used the intermission as an opportunity to escape. Not everyone came back I noticed as I moved closer to the burying ground. I wish the performance had ended with a conversation about next steps. Do we take our dead to city hall in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, San Leandro. . .? What do we do with our loved ones chilling on cooling boards still too warm to touch?
The talented young cast sing, dance and use sign-language in this well-choreographed and directed work. Coarse street vernacular characterizes most of the dialogue; even the Old Seer (Awele Makeba) uses profanity which I think is unnecessary, yet despite this criticism, Kelley’s reworking of Antigone in Xtigone, a play which revolves around a curse—her father Oedipus sleeps with his mother. Tigs decides to uncover this degradation of all that is holy and human. She uses her legacy as a warning. How easily honor turns to horror. She unburies the dead to give these ancient roots a repotting.
Ms. Rhodessa Jones is a perfect choice as director; her ability to spin tales and weave magical realism on stage is legendary. Her Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women is testament to her vision. Incarceration is relative. Xtigone is the story of a city under siege, a city at war. Isn’t war the ultimate captivity, that and the fear war brings? Ancestors get up and walk among us— they are in the aisles, behind us in the darker regions of the inarticulate shadowy spaces. The ghosts’ random wanderlust remains one of the works more unsettling aspects.
For those familiar with Jones’s aesthetic hand we notice the use of ASL and the work’s heighted feminine. Even if the words were not spoken, that is, “Mama Goddess,” we would know SHE was running this show (smile).
Ms. Jones in collaboration with Tommy “DJ Soulati” Shepard pull together an amazing work—Jones says Shepard was with her in rehearsals composing melodies to fit the scenes. Known for his ability to craft scores, especially in hip hop theatre, Xtigone is in keeping with his reputation. Kelley’s play would have been wonderful without the music; her stunning lyricism coupled with Shepard’s craft, make the work a contemporary masterpiece. Again, it is because the cast are such fine artists: Tigs’s sister Izzy (Tavia Percia), not to mention the Chorus (Brooklyn Fields), Fay (Jasmine Strange) and Tea Flake (Naima Shalhoub) – when the two gangs square off—Michael Wayne Turner (Tigs’s Beau) is paired with a wonderful younger gangster who holds his own with the older actor.
Places of resonance are when the cast surround the mayor and make him face the deaths. The contemporary ring shout holds the dead. The youth call the names of children killed by gunfire and sanctify the ground where they lie uncovered. The mayor runs from its center, but there is nowhere for him to go. While he babbles incoherently at the intersection between worlds, it is the vocalese of mayoral aide Niama Shalhoub’s Tea Flake that keeps us falling off the edges of our seats. Tea Flake opens the work; she is the voice we can trust. And we follow it even when Tigs is arrested; Fay admits to graft, selling out and Beau arrives too late (or so we think)—Tea Cake keeps the story moving from one frame to the next. Often a lone voice in the quiet or disquiet, Tea Flake is also conflicted; she likes and perhaps admires Tigs, but who would go against a power structure like the Mayor and his City Hall unless she wants to suffer the same fate as her brother E-Mem?
Tigs is alone; even her fiancé, Beau (Michael Wayne Turner) cannot save her from the gallows. There is a lovely scene where Tigs sings of her doubt and fate. Human walls confine her—pliant, they push back when she tries to escape. Tigs never forgets where she is going or where she came from. She is connected to a linage bigger than the sins of her father and mother. Several times we hear her call the names of her ancestors and heroines whom she gains inspiration. A name she calls is that of first lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama. The goddess who lives in Tigs’s world is engaged, active and present. She is a Mama Goddess, who blesses all her children, yet seems to favor the women (smile).
Awele Makeba, as the old woman, dances the medicine, while the old seer chastises the mayor who “should have known better,” she says. He once was a man with principles we learn in a talk with his son, Beau (Michael Wayne Turner) who implores his father to return to these core beliefs before it is too late. Dressed in ceremonial white, Makeba whirls and bends the space between subjects as she sweeps the temporal with magical broom, tying off loose threads which occasionally entangle. She welcomes the departed and clears the path for the living. We hear her rattle—like cowries sending telegrams between saints and those left unearthed. The rattle is also Dhambalah, the snake, purifying the sacred spaces which contain both suffering and healing. Makeba’s Spirit, like the seer, mediates between slumber and death.
Tigs can see the dead too. She and her brother E-Mem have a special relationship. Sometimes one cannot outrun destiny.
Xtigone is cautionary, while at the same time it honors the young lives lost to senseless violence. The two gangs: Disciples and Latin Kings want to halt the violence, but who will be the first to put down his gun? In this contemporary world, young girls carry assault weapons as are boys. Bravado leads to unnecessary killing and death, surprising in its random trajectory. Xtigone is powerful, because we know these children and the names called. The bodies unearthed belong to our kin. Two are my nephews, Carlton and Oba– one killed in San Francisco, the other in Oakland. I wonder what happened to their shoes? Perhaps if killers or those responsible for the death of so many innocents had to walk in the shoes of their victims the landscape might take on a different meaning? To his credit, Marsellus puts on E-Mem’s Jordans.
Dwight Dean Mahabir’s character, to his credit (and Kelley’s writing) does not remain in a weakened state. Just his associations with the Seer or Old Woman whom he initially listens to early on in his career, gives citizens (and the audience) a bit of hope. But until the very end, we don’t know which way his spirit will blow – lovely Fay (Jasmine Strange) his windy city.
From the set to the costumes and lighting, Xtigone had a fabulous world premiere in San Francisco at the African American Shakespeare Theatre, celebrating 20 years this 2015 (smile). Look out Chicago (next stop on the tour), African Shakes’ production will be a hard act to follow (smile).