“You are not alone across time.”
Bryan Doerries is co-founder, principal translator, and artistic director of Theater of War Productions. In 2021, Theater of War is launching a new form of global amphitheater in conjunction with the first ever Nobel Prize Summit on the civilizational issues facing humanity. Learn more - and register - at The Oedipus Project. His books include The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today and All That You’ve Seen Here is God, his translations of four ancient plays.
Krista Tippett, host: “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.” 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. Performances of his public health project, Theater of War, have been some of the some of the most generative — and repeatedly, surprisingly joyful — experiences of my pandemic year. This adventure began in 2008, at first bringing Greek tragedies into mini-modern-amphitheaters where trauma is present — military bases and hospitals, prisons, even Guantanamo Bay. It expanded out from there, offering Sophocles and Shakespeare and the Book of Job as crucibles for dwelling, and moving forward, with the particular dramas of our time, from caregiving and addiction and partner violence, to the hidden wounds of war, and open political fracture. Great actors have joined this company, from Bill Murray to Moses Ingram, from Frances McDormand to Jeffrey Wright.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Jeffrey Wright: I sit and gnaw on my grief, my groans pour out like water. My worst fears have happened, my nightmares have come to life. Silence and peace have abandoned me. And anguish camps in my heart.
Tippett: Yet, the plays and actors are not the most powerful experience here. That is in the conversation that always follows a performance; what it activates in living people, who become more participants than audience. 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.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Audience Member 1: Well, it really resonated with me. And I was thinking about Sophocles was about how they immediately tried to delegitimize Tiresias as a prophet. And who are the prophets in this moment? And how do we avoid from directly engaging with them, and then just question whether they are even worthy of having speech? There’s all types of things that are essential to society, and part of it is having this public imaginary, where we can come together and make sense of what makes no sense at all. So, thank you.
Audience Member 2: The ending of the play offers hope, and if there’s one thing that keeps EMS people going, and the doctor and everybody else, is you have to have a little reservoir of hope. And the pandemic can drain that reservoir. And if there’s one emotion that makes humanity human, to be humane to each other, it’s hope. That’s how I interpreted it.
Tippett: On a single day in 2017, Bryan Doerries tells of enacting a play at a homeless shelter in the Bronx, and, later that night, at Lincoln Center. He remembers wishing so fervently that he could join the words and lives in those two rooms. Enter 2020, and Bryan Doerries found that amphitheater that could bring disparate worlds together — we call it Zoom. And now Theater of War is launching a new form of global amphitheater for the world ahead, in conjunction with the first ever Nobel Prize Summit on the civilizational issues facing humanity. This work is such a vivid example of a time-tested gift our world possesses towards grieving and healing and growing, and I’m delighted to shine a light on it.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Bryan Doerries is co-founder, principal translator, and artistic director of Theater of War Productions. He grew up in Newport News, Virginia, the child of two psychologists. He traces his fascination with Greek tragedy back to performing as a child in Euripides’ Medea, at his father’s community college. He went on to study ancient Greek and other classical languages. But none of that alone made Theater of War the passionate offering to our life together that it has become.
It seems important to me, too, in your life story — and you do write about this and speak about this, sometimes — that also at that young age, when you were in your early 20s, you fell in love; you were engaged to a woman named Laura, who died, and you had this experience at the extremities of human condition and of suffering. And it feels like that also somehow becomes part of your connection to the truth of these stories and what they tell us about ourselves.
Doerries: That was a big piece of it, for me. In some ways, it feels inappropriate, as a young person, to be studying antiquity, because you have so little life experience with which to compare it. For me, it wasn’t until I’d experienced the death of someone I’d loved, until I’d observed the limits of my own compassion, until I had experienced moral distress and shame, that the plays felt like they spoke directly to me or about me. And I didn’t just lose my girlfriend. I was her principal caregiver for five or six months, at the end of her life.
Tippett: She had cystic fibrosis, which she’d had all of her life.
Doerries: She had cystic fibrosis, and she was someone who, as early as age three, had been able to articulate her sense of her own mortality to her parents. And when she died, the thing that actually hurt the most wasn’t her loss, it was the fact that nobody wanted to talk about it. And the more I tried to talk about all these things I had observed and experienced, not just in her dying but in the months leading up to it, the more people seemed to recoil. And it took me about a hundred performances of Theater of War and some of our other projects to realize that, at a very core level, the work that I’ve been doing for the last 12 years has been about creating the conditions where people will talk about it.
Tippett: One of the things you’ve said about what’s happening — the power of these human creations that is these stories — is that these are “not simply entertainment, but a technology that arose from a need for the collective witness of human suffering,” and that you can plug these, “like an external hard drive, … into the right audience,” and “the ancient plays still work with startling efficiency.”
Doerries: So in the ancient world, in the fifth century, B.C., we’re talking about a century in which the Greeks saw nearly 80 years of war. We’re talking about a century in which a plague kills one-third of the Athenian population. We’re talking about a century in which the birth of medicine was formalized as a profession, as separate and apart from snake oil sales and other healing arts. And yet, it didn’t have that much to offer, in terms of allaying the inevitable pain that awaits all human beings when they face their own mortality. And add these all together, and, out of necessity, the Greeks developed this form of storytelling that served a very direct purpose that I think we’ve lost touch with as a society, as a culture.
And that purpose was to communalize trauma, to create the conditions where — the word “amphitheater” in Greek means “the place where we go to see in both directions.” “Amphi-” — I see you, you see me; both directions. “Theatron” — the seeing place. So we go to the amphitheater in the fifth century, B.C., to see each other, to see ourselves; to see that we are not the only people to have felt this isolated or this ashamed or this betrayed — not just because it’s being enacted onstage, but because people around us in this semicircular structure are all validating and acknowledging the truth of what we’re watching.
And that’s been the central value of our work — that the audience with skin in the game, the audience with something at stake, has more to teach us than we to teach them. Which, if you’d told me when I was a student at Kenyon College — that reading a Greek play or an ancient text could result in saving someone’s life, or someone talking to their wife for the first time, or averting suicide, or averting an act of violence, or checking themselves into a 28-day treatment program — I’d say, “That’s ridiculous; that’s hyperbole; it’s absurd, it’s self-aggrandizing.” But, in fact, that’s what we stumbled across.
Tippett: When I first heard about your project, years ago — I think the Theater of War [laughs] is kind of a startling title.
Doerries: It is. It is.
Tippett: And you call it — you lead it and founded it as a public health project, for all the reasons we’re talking about here. And you did — as you say, you wandered into this, initially, presenting these readings of ancient Greek war plays — a lot of them had war themes — for military and civilian audiences. And so here we are in this new moment — I like that you’re one of the few people I know who thinks about chronos and kairós like I do — [laughs] of course, this is Greek language; they’re different forms of time. You give that definition. You’re the expert.
Doerries: So the Greeks had a very complex conception of time, but just like they had multiple words for love and multiple words for various seats of emotion and places of cognition within the body, they had multiple words for time. And two of the words were chronos, which is chronological time or the great, measurable expanse of time, and kairós. And kairós, in Greek — several definitions, but for me, it’s a moment that stands outside of time. It’s atemporal space that is timeless. And in the kairós, in the New Testament, the kairós is “the time is nigh.”
Tippett: It’s like an in-breaking. It’s like a moment of opportunity that is distinct, that transcends the kind of flow and the increments of the passage of time, chronologically.
Doerries: And I think you’re right; the pandemic is a kairós, in the sense that it’s an opportunity. I would never fetishize the pandemic; I wish it weren’t here, but it is. And so the pandemic has made visible, to many people who were willfully blind — much like Oedipus, in one of our other projects — has made visible things that I hope we won’t be able to un-see.
And that’s a kind of telos, the sort of end possibility of what this might accomplish. And so for us, yes, we started with military audiences, and that led us to all kinds of other spaces people really couldn’t come into. But with the pandemic, we had to find a way forward, and we did that through the technology of Zoom. And by connecting that external hard drive of ancient technology of theater, but also Athenian theater, with the most contemporary and unfolding technologies of Zoom, all of a sudden, this digital amphitheater emerged.
[music: “The Trestle” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: Here is a voice of a citizen viewer of a virtual Theater of War performance of Oedipus the King, one of the most famous plays of antiquity. This was created in partnership with the Office of the New York City Public Advocate and the Brooklyn Public Library. Oedipus eventually extinguishes the sight from his own eyes after discovering that he has been blind to his own identity, to crimes he had perpetuated, wittingly and unwittingly, and to the realization that he is the source of a plague that is ravaging his people and his land.
Audience Member 3: To me, the idea of blindness was what really stuck with me. It’s the most obvious thing you could perhaps pick up, but considering what it might have meant then, when the plague was portrayed, especially since they had no idea what could be causing plagues like this. It must have been so terrifying, that lack of control. And to be able to see — right now I think a lot of us, even today, are feeling this lack of control because we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, there’s so much uncertainty surrounding everything — I think that idea of not being able to see what’s happening around you, and that lack of control, really, I think that’s something — that’s something that we have to fight against, if we’re going to get out of this eventually.
[music: “The Trestle” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Bryan Doerries, co-founder and artistic director of Theater of War Productions.
[music: “The Trestle” by Blue Dot Sessions]
You do have this wonderful book, which I’m gonna recommend, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. And I don’t know if this is what was meant, when this passage was written, but this is from Prometheus. And it’s Prometheus saying, “I saved men from total annihilation, from almost certain death, and now I am to endure these terrible tortures, painful to feel, almost worse to observe. I treated men with compassion but was not thought worthy enough to receive it in return. Instead, I will be displayed for all to see, so ruthlessly abused that even Zeus averts his eyes.”
And when I read that again, I thought of our “frontline workers,” our essential workers. And even if they are working in warehouses, to ship packages because people have to stay home, engaged in care — and who we, at least with our words, put up on pedestals to talk about as heroes, and yet there’s incredible moral distress and, in fact, moral injury in the disconnect between our words and how we actually structure our society and what we celebrate, and then actually how people are suffering from …
Doerries: I’m thinking about several things while you’re saying that. But to me, what the Greeks knew and what these other ancient authors, I think, tapped into is something we’re only now finding words to articulate again, which is that betrayal is the wound that cuts the deepest. You can call it whatever you want, moral distress, moral injury, but really, it’s betrayal — feeling abandoned or betrayed, or betraying oneself and one’s sense of what’s right. And so we had respiratory therapists in some of our early performances during the pandemic, who were saying, “I have 20 patients on respirators in the public hospital in the Bronx, and there’s only me, and I’m left with the guilt of not being able to attend to them all.”
That’s an impossible situation. So you call that person a hero, when they’re wrestling with their own sense of betraying their own standards of care and being betrayed by the system that put them in that position, and it could actually hurt them. When people get up and they decide to narrate their own moral distress — the first time I remember it happening in this way, there was an Iraq war veteran who, at a performance in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, talked about the moral distress he carried on his shoulders after ordering a missile strike on a house and having faulty intelligence and killing a family, including two children that were the same age as his children, and coming back from the war and not being able to sleep, and eventually having to seek in-patient treatment over and over again because of that moral distress and that moral injury.
He related the story, and then a hand shot up in the audience, in the discussion — I asked a question of the audience; the audience fired back. And this man shot up his hand and said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna say” — and that’s usually a really good sign, in our model, that something’s gonna happen that’s good or productive — “but I feel compelled to speak. I’m a family physician. I live in this community. I don’t know anyone in the military. And having heard you say that, sir, I feel I don’t deserve to have been in the room to have heard that.” And the army veteran looked up to the back of this cavernous, 800-seat theater and said to the doctor, “Thank you for saying that, sir. I, too, feel I don’t deserve to be here.”
And in that humility, something started to happen in the discussion that I hadn’t noticed before, when we were just focusing on, how do we create the conditions for people to narrate or express their trauma, where they don’t feel on the spot when they’re interpreting the story?
Later, as things evolved, people started doing things that really blew my mind — like a doctor stood up at a performance, and she said, in response to what veterans were saying, she essentially acknowledged her own malpractice in front of a group of people and said, “I intentionally didn’t treat veterans, because — for fear of aiding the war effort, and I caused suffering.” And she starts to bawl and cry in front of the audience and says, “I promise I’ll never do that again.” Well, afterwards, veterans swarmed around her, and I heard one of them say, “Thank you so much. That was so much better than ‘thank you for your service.’”
And then it dawned on me that what the job of the person who hasn’t faced the stakes of life and death, who’s listening to these stories, to do is actually not to just observe, and certainly not to consume it — and that’s one of the reasons our work is free — but — and it’s not just to bear witness, but it’s actually to take the risk of acknowledging our own moral distress; to meet people in the trenches and say, “You know, actually, I did something that’s so shameful that I’m only saying it now, in public, for the first time, because of your courage and what you’ve just said. And I want you to know that I can’t understand the material circumstances of what happened to you in the war, but I do understand your sense of betrayal or isolation or remorse, because I too have faced and done these things.”
[music: “Bright” by Stafraenn Hakon]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Bryan Doerries — including more Oedipus, and an offering from the Antigone in Ferguson choir. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Bright” by Stafraenn Hakon]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m with Bryan Doerries of the public health project, Theater of War Productions. We’re experiencing how texts and stories that have stood the test of time invite a grappling with present realities in a way we aren’t able to muster right now, in our official places.
In 2020, Theater of War moved to the worldwide amphitheater of the internet, and these were some of the most meaningful hours I’ve spent recently, on Zoom or anywhere. I watched the Book of Job, with Bill Murray playing Job, in Knox County, Ohio, after the 2020 election. I watched a cast that included the actor Moses Ingram and several members of Congress do a dramatic reading of a famous sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. I watched Hercules in Pennsylvania — Hercules, who, in a fit of madness, kills his own children. As the discussion that follows each reading always reveals, even the most elaborate and tangled of ancient plots is not more elaborate and tangled than the truth of us. Participants in the Hercules reading included a father of one of the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
I want to say, also, what really is manifest is this truth that gets lost in our polarized culture that, all around, reduces other people to stereotypes and symbols. For example, we started this conversation with you talking about how these stories are our stories. These Greek tragedies are not meant to be the possession of people with PhDs [laughs] or people who get A’s. And what I want to say is, participating in how you’re bringing these dramas — and not just these texts, but texts that are classic in other ways but have stood the test of time — is that you watch all kinds of people engage with them, and what just is manifest is something I know, but I think this is a piece of knowledge that is endangered in our culture right now, is that the education gap, the socioeconomic gap — it’s not a dignity gap, and it’s not an intelligence gap.
Doerries: No. Can I make a suggestion? I know we’re gonna eventually run out of time, [laughs] although I’d love to talk to you for hours. I wonder if I could read to you a passage from a translation I’m working on right now that has yet to find an audience, and then ask you the question I ask all audiences and have you respond from your gut, without any preparation …
Tippett: All right.
Doerries: … so we can just model for the audience what this is …
Tippett: Let’s do it.
Doerries: … with the caveat that all humans encounter all the things we’ve discussed, at some point in time, and that it doesn’t have to be framed through any one identity or any one life experience. It’s just about treating the person who’s responding with humility, and listening to what they have to say.
So this is a passage from Oedipus at Colonus. And the freeze-dried version of the story is that Oedipus went running from his fate, when he learned from an oracle at a young age that he was to sleep with his mother and kill his father. And thinking that his parents were his actual biological parents, he ran away and then ended up doing the very thing the oracle said he would do, when he was attacked by his father on the way to Thebes, where he was running away from Corinth. And he killed his father, sort of in self-defense, and all the people around him — although, it’s arguable, he didn’t need to kill them all — and then ends up solving the riddle of the Sphinx and rescuing Thebes from the bloodshed of this mythological creature.
And in exchange for that, he is made King of Thebes and given, as a wife, Jocasta, the queen, who, turns out, happens to be his mother, which he doesn’t learn until he’s had several children with her. And a virulent plague comes to Thebes, and a new oracle is unleashed, that unless Oedipus finds the perpetrator of the crime of the killing of King Laius and expel that person or execute that person, the plague will continue to ravage Thebes.
And, over the course of Oedipus the King, one of the most famous plays of antiquity, Oedipus discovers that he was blind to his own identity and who he was and the crimes he had been perpetrating unwittingly. And in humiliation, his wife, Jocasta — and his mother — takes her own life, and after she does that, he takes her hairpins and plunges them into his eyes and finally achieves a certain sight, in blindness, and wanders off in exile.
And the play — Oedipus at Colonus is the play that comes after that. And Oedipus comes to Athens, with Antigone, his daughter, leading him there. He’s been on the road for years now — he’s blind, he’s been a beggar, he’s had no home; he’s been unhoused — and an oracle has foretold that if he goes to Athens and dies there, he will bring great fortune to Athens. So, when he arrives in Athens, he’s immediately interrogated as to who he is by the people who live in Colonus, which is sort of a suburb of Athens, on the outskirts of Athens. And standing in front of the temple of the Furies, when the townspeople realize who he is, they immediately try to expel him and his daughter from their community. And this is what he says to those people:
“What is the point of a good reputation, if all the goodness which makes Athens famous evaporates in an instant? It has been said that Athens above all other places has reverence for the gods, and it is the only city strong enough to offer sanctuary and protection to a suffering stranger. Now, how can that be? For after making me get up from that ledge over there, without hesitating you have resolved to drive me out of the city, only moments after learning my name, which seems to fill you with fear.
“What makes you so afraid? Surely, it isn’t my physical condition, or my actions, for that matter, which, as you know, were not things I did, but things I suffered. If I must speak of them again and revisit the story of my mother and father, then please, tell me this. How am I evil? I did what anyone in my position would do when attacked — I struck back. Even if I knew what I was doing, I ask you, does that make me evil? But I didn’t know. That is the only thing I know for sure. I acted in ignorance, while my parents knew full well what they were doing, when they left me on the side of a mountain to die.
“And so, strangers, I’m begging you, by the gods, just as you made me leave the protection of that sacred grove, please protect me now, showing reverence for the local deities. Make no mistake, they see the actions of both the faithful and the profane, and they never let disrespectful men escape. Do not stain the city of Athens, in all of its fortune, with sacrilegious acts. With the help of the gods, receive this suppliant in accordance with your oath to accept and defend me no matter the cost. I know my face is repugnant, but do not dishonor me with your gaze, for I have come here, a faithful and holy man, to bring fortune and great gains to the citizens of this city. And when your ruler, whoever he may be, when he hears all of these things, he will understand. Until then, I ask you, please do not mistreat me.”
OK, so here’s the passage from Oedipus at Colonus. The question I ask all audiences: In spite of the distance of culture and time, in spite of everything that separates us from the Greeks who watched this play at the end of Athenian democracy, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, what spoke to you across time in that passage? What touched you; what resonated with you today; what was true?
Tippett: [laughs] So many things that kind of contradict each other. Well, there’s, first of all, the punitive impulse that he is meeting that is so familiar. The complexity of suffering — I feel like that speaks so much to me about our world now.
This is one of the things we didn’t get to talk about, but I wanted you to talk about — the meaning of tragedy. And recently, I heard this quote that Elie Wiesel, actually, liked, of Hegel — that genuine tragedies are not conflicts between right and wrong, but conflicts between two rights. But I actually feel like the tragedy of our time is so many wounds, so many sufferings that can’t be equated, and yet they’re all so real. And we try to not address the suffering; we want to address the problem or the issue or the conflict, and we want to turn it into a right or a wrong. And what you keep saying and what I hear in these passages is that these plays, they won’t let us do that, because there’s a wisdom that until we actually — we deal with hate, and we address hate and we address outrage and we address anger, but at the root of all of that is fear and suffering. And so it’s all perpetuated.
And yet, there’s also a measure of self-deception there, because this speech is a little bit too simple. [laughs]
Doerries: That’s right. And it’s an abdication of responsibility for crimes.
Tippett: Right, it’s an abdication of responsibility, even though it’s also true that there has been genuine suffering. And the very uncomfortable assertion that “any of you would’ve done this, in my place” — that bears reflection.
Doerries: See, and that’s what I love about the Greek tragedies, in particular, but also other depictions of ancient stories — it is the complexity. This is a person with an agenda, who is also suffering. And at its core, he’s asking for asylum, he’s asking for protection, he’s asking for us to help address his suffering; and, simultaneously, his presence, his appearance, his smell, the crimes he’s committed, his relationship to those crimes, can be seen as repugnant, to many people, in a very direct, visceral way.
I think about all the ways that, on the way to work or home, or walking through the streets of New York — there were already 65,000 homeless people in New York, unhoused people in New York, prior to the pandemic — that I ignore the suffering of people to my left and right, intentionally and unintentionally, in order to get through my day — the domestic violence I witness on the subway, the person who’s struggling with addiction. And if I let it all in, I guess the fear is — in all of its complexity —
Tippett: You will be overwhelmed.
Doerries: Yes. And so I think this is one of the reasons we, as a species, need the mediation of these stories — to create spaces where we can feel what it’s appropriate to feel and also acknowledge the complexity. We didn’t come to tie a bow on this and say that there’s a message. We came here to ask more questions and problematize it and interrogate it.
And so I have two definitions of tragedy. The easiest and simplest of them is that tragedy is a story about people learning too late, and usually milliseconds too late. And in those milliseconds, in which usually they learn what they’ve done, they end up destroying themselves and generations to come.
Tippett: That, to me, is a scary potential of our century — that we’re decades, centuries too late, but in a historical view, it’s gonna be the blink of an eye.
Doerries: Right, it’ll be a footnote. So that’s one. And the other is stories — this is Sophoclean tragedy, plays by Sophocles in particular — is stories in which everyone believes they’re right, or justified in what they’re doing, and someone’s going to die. And both of those evoke really strong, visceral responses, when I think about it. But the flipside is, that may be what’s happening onstage, but what is the impact of watching stories about people learning too late, or watching people all believe they’re right, yet someone’s going to die, on the audience that watches that transpire?
And that’s what I think we’ve been missing. People, after watching our performances, report feeling joy, sense of connection, buzzing, hope. And I think the hope in all of it is in — well, I mean, one of the first performances we did, on a military base in Germany, there was an American soldier —
Tippett: Oh, I think you tell this story.
Doerries: In my book, yeah. He stands up, and he says — I said, “Well, why did Sophocles write this play about this warrior that takes his own life, Ajax, after losing his best friend in battle and being betrayed by his own commanding officers?” This guy shot out from the back of the room, he says, “I think he wrote the play to boost morale.” This is in 2009; 2010 maybe. “Morale boosting? Well, what’s morale-boosting about watching a great warrior lose his best friend in battle and, ultimately, against the pleading of his family, take his own” — before I could finish asking the question, the young man shot back, “Because it’s the truth.” And then he said, “And we’re all sitting here, shoulder-to-shoulder, acknowledging it.” And then he said, “And it’s not being whitewashed.”
Tippett: And that brings hope? [laughs]
Doerries: To sit together as a community and acknowledge the truth of war or the truth of addiction or the truth of domestic violence or the truth of COVID — inasmuch as it reduces our sense of isolation, and inasmuch as it’s able to put into words, grammar, and syntax things that we thought only we had ever thought, let alone ever expressed, I think it can be the most joyous experience there is. And that runs against the grain of everything anyone’s ever thought or taught about what Greek tragedy is; and I’m not saying that I understand it, but if someone comes to see one of our performances, they will experience it.
Tippett: Is it a kind of relief — the kind of joy that comes with relief?
Doerries: I would like to think that. That’s how it all started for me — relief to know that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way.
[music: “I’m Covered” by Philip Woodmore & the Antigone in Ferguson Virtual Choir]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with Bryan Doerries of the public health project, Theater of War Productions. This music was composed by Philip Woodmore for Theater of War’s Antigone in Ferguson, reprised on Zoom on August 9, 2020, six years to the day after Michael Brown was killed by police. The cast included actor Oscar Isaac and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The chorus included St. Louis police officers. This vocalist is De-Rance Blaylock, who was Michael Brown’s teacher.
[music: “I’m Covered” by Philip Woodmore & the Antigone in Ferguson Virtual Choir]
There’s so many things, so many more things I wish we could talk about. [laughs] I’m sitting here with all my notes. There’s one I just want to mention.
Doerries: Yeah, yeah, sure.
Tippett: I just want to mention, I see, from where I sit — and I choose to place my hope in and to throw my body at that hope — that there is what I think of as the generative narrative of our time. The dysfunctional narrative gets all the attention and is heavily investigated, and it’s also true. But there’s also this story of our time that is unfolding, about people befriending complexity and speaking the truth and genuinely asking, OK, so how do we rearrange our lives, to be faithful to this truth? And I feel like that also is on display when I watch your events. So I just wonder, if I ask you, what do you see? Do you see the generative narrative of our time? What are some of the points along that — or some of the stories in there, from where you sit, from this work you do?
Doerries: Wow. Well, there are so many ways I could respond to that. I guess I’ll say a couple of quick things. I find immense hope in the fact that this generation — and I mean the younger generation, in particular — not only wants to talk about it, but demands that we talk about it, so that having an adolescent or even a person in their 20s in the room can shift the room, no matter what their experiences are. And that gives me hope for the future, seeing the millennial generation serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the older generations.
There’s a theory that the choruses of Greek dramas were actually performed by 18- and 19-year-olds, called ephebes. And I like that theory, because it almost seemed like the Greeks were taking the young people and exposing them to the complexity of adult life, but simultaneously they were inviting older members of the community to reconnect with the sensitivity they had lost over the span of their adult life by seeing the mediating responses of younger people first, to what was happening onstage.
Tippett: That’s really interesting.
Doerries: And I think — so there’s something about this younger generation’s ability to acknowledge and talk about things like consent and power dynamics and privilege and trauma and hazing and all these things that we should really have been interrogating for a long time. These people who are working on the frontlines through the RISE Project, which is part of Center for Court Innovation in New York City, which is part of the larger Cure Violence movement that doesn’t see perpetrators of violence as radically apart from victims. And this goes back to Oedipus. Really, if you look at Oedipus, it’s a narrative of early childhood trauma. His feet are pierced, he’s left on a side of a mountain. It doesn’t — it’s in his name. His name means “pierced feet”; “oidi-” “pous.” It’s early childhood trauma, which affects him epigenetically, at some deep level.
Tippett: Even though they didn’t know about epigenetics. [laughs]
Doerries: But they knew about intergenerational curse.
Tippett: But they did. They did.
Doerries: That’s what they’re describing. And so this is the curse that follows him. It’s the curse that informs the violent way he lashes out after he’s attacked on the road and kills everyone. It’s part of him from the very beginning, and it was given to him by his parents. And so how do we break these cycles of violence? I think the only way is to see ourselves as both/and, perpetrators and victims, and to look at that really closely and to say, the only way to break that cycle is to acknowledge the traumas and the wounds that inform and create the violence that we enact on others.
And that’s why the work that gets done by Violence Interrupters or formerly gang-affiliated youth in New York City — we partner with them quite a bit — is really what inspires us to go deeper and deeper into underserved communities: not because we think we have something for them, but because they have something for us. This is where it’s at.
Tippett: I want to say something, also, that’s really important to me in your work, because some of what you just said, I know how it would be interpreted in — OK, and here I’m gonna invoke a stereotype — but in the stereotypical progressive ear. [laughs] And just acknowledging that progressives are just as complicated as everyone else.
Tippett: But — none of this is about — it doesn’t fall out along those lines. So something I loved, when you did The Book of Job in Knox County, you just had people from all of these ways we put people in boxes — red and blue, Democrats and Republicans, working-class and elite, or whatever those categories are — these tragedies, these human stories never did that. They just don’t let us divide the world up or divide ourselves up in that way.
Doerries: It really started, for us, with this impulse to put people, real people, non-professional actors or people who do other things, into the story, into the plays. The performance you referenced, of The Book of Job in Knox County, we got the Republican mayor of Knox County, Matthew Starr — Knox County, Ohio, at that time, had just voted 72 percent for Donald Trump — to play the accusing angel. He was a real sport to do that, I thought. [laughs] He didn’t hesitate when I asked because he knew, he trusted, that this was not about casting him as Satan. This was about performance as an act of service, but that the service he’d be providing would also be bringing all these other people from parts of this conservative community, who would never trust an invitation from a New York-based social impact director to come talk about “how do we heal after this election?”
Tippett: You speak a lot about your theory of change. I also hear you speaking so much, and living this, being of service. Want to say anything about that?
Doerries: I do. I don’t believe in much with any certainty. But what I’ve seen, over the last 12 years of doing this work, is people discovering that by telling their story and sharing their narrative, no matter how hard it may be, they are helping other people, and in helping other people, they’re healing themselves. And that seems like a physical law of our universe, almost.
And I just think we’ve lost touch with that on a big level. And that’s how this all started, not just for the Western world, but in almost every culture, and that’s what I think the pandemic has given us the opportunity to reconnect with. But now, by virtue of technology like Zoom, we can do it. You know, our first performance on Zoom was for more than 15,000 people from 48 countries. This is an amphitheater that Sophocles could never have conceived of.
Tippett: We tapped into something that was a gift that we didn’t realize we possessed.
Doerries: Oh my goodness. Now we can bring people into the homeless shelter, and we can bring people who are experiencing being unhoused into people’s homes. We had someone recently, at one of our performances, reveal during our comments, “Oh, I’m in the kitchen at the shelter.” She’s just talking into her phone, via Zoom.
Tippett: I feel like this is what you’re describing here, is the generative narrative of Zoom. [laughs]
Doerries: [laughs] That’s right.
Tippett: And it is the specific platform, but it’s what this platform represents of our capacities, technological capacities; and the platform will evolve.
I do love the benediction that I’ve heard you give. Would you give that benediction right now?
Doerries: [laughs] Sure. Someone recently chastised me for giving it, but I feel so compelled to say it, because it’s — I mean, look. At the end of everything we do, every performance, every session — people do get bored of hearing me say it — “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Tippett: And that — actually, that phrase came from — that phrase was originally made about newspapers.
Doerries: Newspapers, the early 20th century; I can’t imagine that’s the first person who ever came up with that formulation — maybe in the English language.
Tippett: [laughs] Well, it’s since been quoted by many theologians, but I love it, also, in this.
Doerries: It honestly doesn’t matter. We mean it as, we hope we did a little of both for everyone here — comforted that we can come together across very disparate walks of life and human experiences, comforted that we can have a response to an ancient story and be validated while listening to each other respond to it, and afflicted that there’s so much more work to be done, in our homes, in our places of work and worship, on public transportation, wherever we live, to address the suffering of people to our left and right, every day, who may have the screams, or the sounds of the screams of these characters in their heads, though we can’t hear them.
And so that benediction is really also a kind of acknowledgment that this should never feel resolved. This should feel like something you have to chew on for some time. And it can’t be consumed — you can’t check this box and say, “Oh, well, I had this experience, and now I understand” whatever the issue is. And I think that’s the other issue with our culture. We’re constantly consuming each other’s suffering. And what does it mean to create something that can’t be consumed? And what new things are possible when that occurs?
[music: “A Palace of Cedar” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: Bryan Doerries is co-founder and artistic director of Theater of War Productions. His books include The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today and All That You’ve Seen Here is God, his translations of four ancient plays. On April 27, 2021, Theater of War is launching a new form of global amphitheater in conjunction with the first ever Nobel Prize Summit on the civilizational issues facing humanity. And you can be part of that: learn more at theaterofwar.com.
[music: “A Palace of Cedar” by Blue Dot Sessions]
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality; supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
The Charles Koch Institute’s Courageous Collaborations initiative, discovering and elevating tools to cure intolerance and bridge differences.
The Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.
And the Ford Foundation, working to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement worldwide.