Antigone in Savannah

Presented by The On Being Project & Theater of War Productions

On December 21, 2022, we presented Antigone in Savannah, in a collaborative production with our friends at Theater of War Productions. The production took place in Savannah, Georgia, in an unnamed Square (formerly known as Calhoun Square) and was streamed live online for our wider community.

Our collaboration was an effort to allow the timeless resonance of the ancient Greek texts to help us consider ourselves anew in history. Antigone poses searing questions that were pertinent in ancient Greece, have been pertinent throughout Georgia’s history, and continue to be pertinent to all of us today. We are alive in a time of war, pestilence, and famine; some conditions of being human haven’t changed in thousands of years. Yet in every period of history, amid troubling times, “human signposts” point us towards hope. Mamie Hillman and Patt Gunn — who you’ll meet here in our pre-event offerings — and those surrounding their efforts are signposts for our time.

We invite you to join us this December to collectively live the questions of Antigone in our time. Ahead of the production, we invite you to reflect with us on questions of grief, time, memory, and healing. We invite you to reflect on what gravesites mean for who we’ve been to each other, and what they might mean for who we can be to each other.

Why Greek Tragedy?

Greek tragedies tell stories about people, locked in conflict, who all believe they are right (or justified) — and because of this, someone inevitably dies. In this way, these ancient plays invite audience members to acknowledge and interrogate the roles they play in modern conflicts each day, opening a space for dialogue, contradiction, empathy, discomfort, and connection.

Tragedies typically feature people thrust into complex ethical situations, for which there are no easy answers and by which they will be haunted for the rest of their lives, no matter what they decide to do. By embodying and giving voice to the moral suffering of these conflicted characters, Greek tragedies create a vocabulary for audience members to wrestle with complex issues, while remaining grounded in the emotional, ethical, and spiritual stakes of the discussion.

What does Georgia’s past show us about our collective future?

Savannah, where this production will take place, is originally home to the Westo and Shawnee people. It is the oldest city in Georgia and one of the original thirteen colonies of the United States.

A port city founded on the Savannah River, its Victorian homes and beautiful squares serve as monuments to critical events of the nascent United States. Savannah bore witness to the American Revolution and the Haitian forces sent to support the revolution in 1779. Georgia outlawed slavery at its founding, but its major port played an integral role in the Atlantic slave trade for forty-eight years. In 1803, those brave souls who perished in the famed Igbo landing were trafficked through Savannah’s port. In 1859, Savannah witnessed the largest sale of enslaved people in U.S. history, an act so tragic it’s said “to have forced God to weep.” In 1864, General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” was a campaign of total destruction, leaving Atlanta and other cities in ashes, damaging the Confederacy and facilitating an end to the U.S. Civil War. Savannah was presented to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift, and the enslaved inhabitants of the region would celebrate their freedom upon Savannah’s capture on December 21, 1864.

Georgia’s history is American history, is world history, is human history. This beautiful city, nestled between the salt marshlands of Georgia’s coast, is a place through which we can see and more deeply understand some of the human questions so alive at the heart of the past and the present. These questions are at the center of how we the United States would shape our social and institutional life as a country. But they’re also questions that are deeply resonant for us all, in every context and every time.

A movement to honor our dead

Sophocles’ Antigone is a deeply human story about a young woman who puts everything on the line to bury one of her brothers who recently died in a brutal civil war. At the center of the play is an unburied body, which poses a timeless question about how and why we honor the dead — and how such choices ripple far forward in time.

For several decades, the Black residents of Savannah were laid to rest in the area that was named “Calhoun Square.” In 1851, the city razed that burial ground without moving the bodies and built a square on top of it — naming it after John C. Calhoun, the famous champion of slavery. A second square was named for George Whitefield. The majority of the bodies were never laid to rest in another location. The gravesites of poor white residents, once buried in what was called “the strangers cemetery,” were similarly disregarded.

Patt Gunn, known locally and on the Georgia coast as “Sistah Patt” is a Master Truth-teller and authentic Gullah Geechee Community Change Agent. Sistah Patt has spent years researching and teaching local residents and visitors alike of the often untold and underrepresented history of Savannah and the region. For the past few years, Sistah Patt and a group of Savannah’s residents have been gathering to talk about how to honor those buried beneath the square. The first step they felt the community needed to make was to rename “Calhoun Square.” Their efforts have thus far paid off; Calhoun’s name was removed by a vote of the city council in October of this year. Their next step is to name the square after Susie King Taylor, a woman born into slavery near Savannah who became a teacher and nurse for the Union Army.

Sistah Patt teaches that in the Gullah Geechee tradition, the live oak trees so prominent throughout Savannah and coastal Georgia are often called “witness trees”.

“Here I am in this place that I want to call sacred. It’s sacred because I can touch this tree, and this tree represents a witness to what happened.”
— Patt Gunn

Patt Gunn, known locally and on the Georgia coast as “Sistah Patt” is a Master Truth-Teller and authentic Gullah Geechee Community Change Agent. Sistah Patt has spent years researching and teaching local residents and visitors alike of the often untold and underrepresented history of Savannah and the region.

Savannah, Georgia, is a place whose story highlights some of the human questions so alive at the heart of the past and the present.

Patt Gunn is a steward of how we honor our dead and what those practices mean for our collective future. Her storytelling, in large part, inspired the location of this production of Antigone in Savannah.

Learn more about Antigone in Savannah and the generative landscape in Georgia.

Just under 200 miles from Savannah lies Greene County and the story of another cemetery:

In 1833 — one hundred years after the founding of the Georgia colony and 20 years before the creation of Savannah’s “Calhoun Square” — in a county named for the revolutionary war hero, Nathaniel Greene, Mercer University was created for the training of clergy. While the main campus has since relocated, the university cemetery remains at the site of its founding, in Penfield.

To this day, a red brick wall surrounds Mercer’s immaculately maintained cemetery, a place set apart. Laid to rest here were among some of the state’s most prominent leaders. At the time of its founding until nearly a century later, it was a cemetery for white people only. Yet, unknown to many until recently, on the other side of the brick wall — in a thickly wooded, overgrown, and neglected area — lies another story to be told. Here were the gravesites of Black men and women of Greene County, enslaved people whose labor and whose lives were also foundational to the story of Georgia. Access to these graves had been prevented by the white community for a long time, and few remembered they were there. But they had not been forgotten by Mamie Hillman. She had been looking for them, and knew there was history here to be remembered, honored, and told.

Mamie Hillman is a social entrepreneur, organizer, educator, and historian who has committed her life to honoring her ancestors by establishing a world in which their descendants — African Americans in and around Greene County, Georgia — can flourish.

“My heart just grieved for those individuals. It was in disrepair — weeds and vines, you know — just not cared for. And I thought of the Negro National Anthem. It’s sad that these people weren’t honored in life or death.”
— Mamie Hillman

Who will we be to each other?

Georgia, like the United States as a whole, was a first-of-its-kind experiment in human history at its founding. Its moments of moral virtue exist alongside its moments of moral failing. Today throughout the state, as throughout the country and around the world, there is a generative landscape of people stitching us together across rupture and working with history to reassemble the broken parts of our shared human story.

In this fractured time, retracing the steps that led us here is one essential way to find a way towards each other and into a shared healing.

Our invitation is for us to consider the questions of Antigone in the context of our own lives and in our lives together.

Re-membering for Our Shared Future
Offerings From Our Library

Vincent Harding was wise about how the vision of the civil rights movement might speak to 21st-century realities. He reminded us that the movement of the ’50s and ’60s was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. He pursued this through patient-yet-passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships. And he posed and lived a question that is freshly in our midst: Is America possible?

“Remember,” Bryan Doerries likes to say in both physical and virtual gatherings, “you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” With his public health project, Theater of War, he is activating an old alchemy for our young century. Ancient stories, and texts that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with present wounds and longings and callings that we aren’t able to muster in our official places now. It’s an embodiment of the good Greek word catharsis — releasing both insight and emotions that have had no place to go, and creating an energizing relief. And it is now unfolding in the “amphitheater” of Zoom that Sophocles could not have imagined.

We are called to consider who we want to be as a people and what kind of world we will build with and for our children. Karen Murphy has been gathering wisdom for this juncture, as she’s worked around the world with teachers and educators in societies moving toward repair after histories of violence. We learn from her about how to prepare ourselves in the U.S. for the civic healing that we are called to ahead.

“I’m entering into this next phase… with a great deal of curiosity and perhaps tenderness, wanting to hold each other tight, because I think that there are ramifications of last year that have yet to be felt.” Rev. Jen Bailey is a wise young pastor and social innovator, and a “friend of a different generation” of Krista. This conversation is a loving adventure in cross-generational mapmaking and care. Jen is a leader in a widening movement that is “healing the healers” — sustaining individuals, organizers, and communities for the long, life-giving transformations ahead.

This conversation came about in partnership with