Some 2,400 years after it was first staged at the midsummer Dionysus festival in Athens, The Trojan Women is oft resurrected as a pacifist theatrical statement. That's understandable. The show is grueling in its depiction of the agonies of women and girls who suddenly find themselves rounded up and treated with far less respect than the gold, jewelry, and horses recovered from a sacked city by the conquerors.
Although it's true that Euripides appears to have been more sympathetic to women than most of the famous poets of his era and far more of an individualist than those who proselytized Greek life as civic duty, it would be a stretch to declare this play anti-war in intent. The writers, actors, and audiences of 415 B.C. Athens had benefited enormously from Greece's battles. To most Athenians, war was at least an inevitable fact of life, at most a chance to grab a little glory from their peers (OK, a chance for men to grab a little glory from their male peers). No, the principle at work behind displaying so much horror so unflinchingly was catharsis. If Greek audiences could sit there and watch these women weep, flail, and beg for mercy, they would be carried through emotional extremes vicariously and (hopefully) not have to suffer them firsthand. At the risk of being historically condescending, that seems a little sick so many years later--producing a play that didn't indict prisoner-of-war atrocities so much as allow people to gape at the carnage like the far-flung wreckage of a plane crash. (We do plenty of sick things too, but I digress.)
Luckily, Euripides' naked, feverish text can be employed for 21st-century liberal humanist propaganda by eager, thoughtful, talented bleeding hearts. Unluckily, it's still pretty pertinent in an era of Bosnian rape camps. The Trojan Women has been co-opted, adapted, reconsidered, and reimagined countless times to grind any number of contemporary axes, but I'm pleased to report that the current co-production between Soul Rep and Cara Mia as part of their ongoing Café/Negro series scorns topical politicizing for a straightforward go at the play's anguished heart.
The intentions behind Café/Negro--a merging of Soul Rep's black sensibilities and Cara Mia's Latino concerns--are an exciting theatrical opportunity in a city where policies are often determined by how the two are reconciled (or how they are not). But what we get watching their dance with old man Euripides is a collaborative recognition of the universality of pain. No fancy modern-day touches of ethnic pride are applied here by director Anyika McMillan and her actors and designers, just a keen awareness of how some shimmering talent can be applied to ancient words and keep audiences awake, engaged, even agitated and apprehensive about what they know is ordained but pray will be prevented anyway.
The Greek plunderers and the Trojan imprisoned are represented at the start of the show by their respective gods--fulsome, robe-clad Athena (Guinea Bennett-Price) and sleek, glittery, bare-torsoed Poseidon (David Benn). I'm no anthropologist, but I detected traces of both Aztec and African influences in the marvelous oversize masks they wore. We are instructed that a new order is overthrowing an old one and introduced to the bloody consequences of the changeover. The entrancing Cynthia Dorn Navarette as Hecuba, Trojan queen turned sexual slave, makes you yearn to see her play all the grand classical roles--Medea, Electra, Lady Macbeth, Titania. Buttermilk-smooth in her sorrow but tossing peppery reserves into your eyes and ears when she is outraged, Navarette is the most reliably vocal of this black and Hispanic female chorus of lamentation, where everything that is most sacred to them--children, husbands, and ultimately self-respect and social standing--is ripped away by Greek soldiers. That's the process of watching The Trojan Women--witnessing without respite individual female lives destroyed one by one from the systematic demands of the conquerors--yet it doesn't become tedious in this production because the actors have such a firm grip on their grief. Everyone has a compelling, unique story to tell. As Andromache, the woman who must release her privileged child to be thrown from a high wall to his death lest he grow up to usurp the invaders, Monique L. Ridge-Williams is especially, painfully convincing.
Again, the most satisfying aspect of The Trojan Women is how little Soul Rep and Cara Mia have tampered with it, yet are speaking thoughts and messages through the material so relevant to their own theatrical missions. Granted, it takes ingenuity to successfully convert a pre-Christian saga into the contemporary terms of the urban American world of racial tensions, to distribute the black and brown and red pop-cultural touches appropriately and effectively. But it requires more gut-level stuff--intuition, mastery of emotional expression, onstage authority--to drop that pre-Christian tragedy basically untouched into the very different contemporary world and make it achingly relevant. With Café/Negro, Soul Rep and Cara Mia want to use theater to make strangers living in the same United States familiar to one another. They've succeeded beautifully in making ancient Greece as recognizable as their neighborhoods and yours.
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