Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.11

Melinda Powers, Diversifying Greek Tragedy on the Contemporary US Stage. Classical presences.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xv, 230.  ISBN 9780198777359.  $74.00.  


Reviewed by Erika L. Weiberg, Florida State University (eweiberg@fsu.edu)

Preview

Building on critical theory interrogating race, gender, sexuality, and ability in performance studies, this thought-provoking book analyzes the strategies that contemporary theater companies have used to ‘reclaim’ Greek tragedy in order to challenge stereotypes of underrepresented and marginalized communities in the US. The book examines productions by African-American, Latinx, female, LGBTQ, and veteran artists that were staged (mostly) between 2005 and 2015. Powers argues that these companies’ adaptations of Greek tragedy largely succeed in challenging stereotypes and exposing the systemic injustices that many in these communities face. However, her nuanced analysis also shows that sometimes these performances reinforce the very stereotypes that they aim to deconstruct. As a result, the study concludes that Greek tragedy is both a powerful and dangerous tool for communicating these messages about the complexities of identity.

Chapter 1 focuses on a performance of Medea in 2008 and Steve Carter’s Pecong (an adaptation of Medea) in 2010 by Take Wing and Soar (TWAS) Productions, as well as a performance of Trojan Women in 2008 by the Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH). Powers frames the discussion of these productions with performance theorist Harvey Young’s concept of ‘the black body’ as a target of racializing projection, arguing that these companies negotiate stereotypes associated with ‘the black body’ through specific performance decisions. By choosing not to locate their 2008 performance of Medea in a distinctly African or African-American context, for example, TWAS rejects the racialized logic that requires Black artists to embody difference and that conflates classical texts with whiteness. At the same time, however, Powers notes that this production received very little critical attention, unlike the two other productions that she discusses, which translocate the setting of the tragedies to the Caribbean and Sierra Leone. The discrepancy in critical reception demonstrates that reviewers favor productions in which Black artists do perform difference. The productions themselves, however, aim to dismantle these stereotypes of ‘the black body.’

In Chapter 2, Powers discusses Luis Alfaro’s adaptations of Greek tragedy in Electricidad, Oedipus El Rey, and Mojada. Drawing on performance theorist Brian Eugenio Herrera’s concept of ‘executing the stereotype,’ this chapter argues that Alfaro’s productions play up certain stereotypes of Latinness in order to deconstruct them through camp aesthetics and humor, blending tragedy and comedy in a way that emphasizes the humanity of the characters. In Oedipus El Rey, for instance, Alfaro presents Oedipus as a Latino gang member in Los Angeles searching for work after incarceration. Through the play’s evocation of the oracles that have determined Oedipus’ fate, Alfaro rewrites the often-stereotyped figure of the Latinx gang member as a product of systemic social, economic, and legal injustices. The performance refuses to provide easy answers to the question of whether Oedipus can overcome these challenges without rejecting or being rejected by his community. Through discussion of a 2014 performance of Oedipus El Rey in Dallas, however, Powers cautions that the technique of playing up stereotypes through costumes, gestures, and performance style can work inadvertently to reinforce rather than eliminate those stereotypes depending upon the context in which the work is staged and its audience.

Chapter 3 analyzes productions of Greek tragedy that challenge assumptions about gender identity. Oddly, the most compelling case study in this section is a production outside of the temporal frame that Powers set for the study – Split Britches’ Honey I’m Home, an adaptation of Euripides’ Alcestis, performed in 1989. Powers argues that this production, along with Faux-Real Theatre Company’s Oedipus XX/XY (2013), employs feminist performance techniques, such as butch-femme role-playing, in order to demonstrate that the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are socially constructed and founded in a system of unequal power relations. Powers argues that the female-identifying actors who play the roles of Admetus and Oedipus in these productions resist performing male characters feminized by their grief or pain, as in the original texts, and so disrupt tragedy’s reinforcement of the male/female binary. She contrasts these productions with Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flynn’s Lysistrata Jones (2011), which, like the ancient text upon which it is based, reinforces negative stereotypes of women and essentialist ideas about gender.

The performances discussed in Chapter 4 extend the discussion of gender from Chapter 3 to an analysis of sexuality. The adaptations analyzed in this chapter, Alain Rochel’s Bacchae (2007), Tim O’Leary’s The Wrath of Aphrodite (2008), and Aaron Mark’s Another Medea (2013), challenge heteronormative conceptions of gender and sexuality at a crucial juncture in the struggle for gay rights, the years leading up to Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. Building on the work of performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz, Powers claims that these adaptations deploy a strategy of ‘disidentification’ in order to challenge stereotypical representations of gay men and to disrupt the gay suicide trope. The plots of the Euripidean tragedies that these playwrights adapt (Bacchae, Hippolytus, and Medea), however, create the risk of playing into this trope, since in each case the gay male protagonist dies. Yet Powers argues that these productions manage to avoid this outcome through ‘disidentification,’ by politicizing rather than aestheticizing their deaths.

Chapter 5 focuses on the representation of the ‘disabled veteran’ in productions by Aquila Theater and Outside the Wire’s Theater of War Project. Although neither of these companies explicitly identifies as disability theatre, Powers points out that their aim is to counter the stereotype of the ‘disabled veteran’ in American society by encouraging conversation between veterans and civilians. As in the social model of disability outlined by disability studies scholars, these companies do not set out to heal or fix any disabilities that veterans may have, but rather use tragic performance to provide an opportunity for veterans to name and discuss their experiences. Powers also points out, however, that Aquila’s model is more successful than that of Outside the Wire in achieving this shared aim. Aquila is a non-profit that casts veterans in performance roles, invites civilians and veterans to participate in discussion, and contextualizes the plays through scholarly moderation of the performance. Outside the Wire’s Theater of War, by contrast, is a for-profit company that offers readings by professional actors to military personnel on bases. As Powers demonstrates, the discussions that Bryan Doerries moderates for Theater of War tend to universalize the experiences of Ajax (and other tragic heroes), while downplaying significant historical differences. Doerries’ emphasis on similarity encourages veterans to talk about their experiences, but also risks playing into stereotypes about suicidal veterans who are often represented in popular media as victims to be pitied or feared.

Through interdisciplinary readings of identity and performance, this book succeeds in making the case that these contemporary artists use Greek tragedy to combat the negative stereotypes that contribute to the systemic oppression of marginalized groups. At certain moments, however, I felt the need for more extended analysis of performance choices that might have complicated the argument. For instance, Chapter 1 notes TWAS’s decision in their production of Steve Carter’s Pecong to cast a darker-skinned Mediyah and a lighter-skinned Sweet Bella, for whom Jason abandons Mediyah and their children. Yet the analysis does not delve into the critique of colorism implicit in such a casting choice or potential stereotypes about ‘the black body’ that such a choice risks reinforcing. Similarly, Chapter 3 does not provide sufficient evidence of how in Oedipus XX/XY Stephanie Regina’s acting decisions manage to resist feminizing Oedipus against the implications of the script. And in Chapter 4, Powers mentions that Allain Rochel’s production of Bacchae creates a love interest for Pentheus who is absent from the original – an enslaved man named Quintus. However, the discussion of this play does not address why Rochel imagines Pentheus’ love interest as enslaved, nor does it delve into the serious problems that such an unequal power dynamic poses for understanding this relationship as consensual or representative of contemporary queer relationships and desires. Because Power’s analysis is elsewhere so insightful, the book would have benefitted from greater engagement with these performance choices.

Finally, the choice of ‘diversifying’ in the title of the book does not accurately capture the book’s argument, and as a term that means different things in different institutional contexts,1 it needs to be defined before being deployed in this way. The term ‘diversifying,’ however, does not appear in the book outside of the title, nor is there an entry in the index for the terms ‘diversity’ or ‘diversifying.’ A more apt key word for this book’s project, therefore, is ‘reclaiming,’ a term that the author defines and that recurs frequently within the book’s chapters.

With its attention to the complexities of identity and representation, this book tackles issues of critical importance for the field of Classics and for American society today. Powers’ case studies belong to the period of Barack Obama’s rise to political power, which was defined by a (cruel) optimism about America’s ability to change. These productions necessarily read differently in the current political climate, which is marked by increasing hostility and outright violence against all of the groups whose efforts to ‘reclaim’ tragedy are spotlighted in this book. In particular, the most recent wave of appropriation of classical antiquity by incels and neo-Nazis in the US, documented by Sarah Bond ("This Is Not Sparta"), Donna Zuckerberg in Not All Dead White Men (2018, Harvard University Press), and Pharos, among others, makes this concept of ‘reclaiming’ at once more necessary and more vexed. In order to understand the uses and abuses of antiquity in the present, it is vitally important for classicists to study the long and varied traditions of performance through which marginalized communities in the US have ‘reclaimed’ and ‘resignified’ Greek drama. These groups have long recognized the racist, misogynist, and ablist underpinnings of both Greek drama and the discipline of Classics, which they have confronted through the tools of creative resistance and disidentification. Powers’ nuanced discussion of these methods of ‘reclaiming’ and ‘resignifying,’ therefore, provides a guidebook for civil disobedience through scholarship and performance in this political moment, while also cautioning about ways in which these methods can backfire. This book will be essential reading for scholars of Greek drama and performance studies, as well as for students and theater practitioners more broadly, and it invites future work on the power and pitfalls of the performance of identity through Greek tragedy today.


Notes:


1.   For a discussion of the language of diversity, its institutional appeal, and the other terms (such as ‘equity’ and ‘social justice’) that it tends to displace, see Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012, Duke University Press).

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