Encore Michigan

Wayne State brings a compelling ‘Xtigone’ to Detroit

Review October 14, 2018 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Thank goodness, the classics not only still get done on stage, they are serving as inspiration for today’s brightest playwrights.

Writer Nambi E. Kelley has taken Sophocles’ Antigone, set in the ancient Greek city of Thebes and moved the play to the Southside of Chicago as Xtigone, and transforms the original morality play about pride to one of challenging patriarchy, corruption amidst a society of gang violence and drive-by-shootings.

In Sophocles’ original, there are long speeches, and here Kelley has kept that structure but replaced them with the vernacular and hip-hop free-styling. There are also several musical numbers rapped A cappella and a hip-hop soundtrack composed by Soulati. And of course, there is a “Greek” chorus of street kids who chant themes about HIV, police brutality and poverty.

Tigs (Faith Berry) is the girlfriend of the corrupt Mayor’s son, and she challenges the black Mayor’s corruption and patriarchical regime, and pushes to find the truth about the drive-by shooting of two young boys one of whom happened to be the Mayor’s nephew.

Students at Wayne State College of Fine, Performing and Communications Arts fill out the cast with some of these young actors able to sparkle. Ms. Berry is luminous as Tigs, showing an almost Joan of Ark-like steel-spine with a bit of swagger, but not without maintaining the vulnerability that goes with being both young and female on the killing streets of Chicago. Her speech about “we stand on the shoulders of Herstory I am the amazons of Dahomey, the queen called Nefertiti, Coretta, Obama’s mama, and if I stand still, Mama Till,” exemplifies the flavor of feminism given to Tigs by Kelley.

Kayla Rodriguez plays Tea Flake, aide to Mayor Marcellus, and acts as a roaming poet and jester, offering commentary on the situations throughout the play. Rodriguez has enormous, in a good way, stage presence and nails her hip-hop speeches, in many ways anchoring the story and bridging the story from the nod to ancient Greece to today’s Chicago. Calvin Biggs also earns (I hesitate to say “steals”) his scenes with funny turns as the Mayor’s other aide LeRoi in a style that is reminiscent of Kenan Thompson from Saturday Night Live.

Cam Blackwell as the Mayor who has let his ambition and thirst for power move him to betray his people, delivers on a hard part to play. He is like the arsonist fireman clinging to self-dealt power. God knows, he has had role models to study in the City of Detroit.

Director Cheryl Turski cast Letitia Grijalva in the role of “The Spirit” connecting Kelley’s physical place to the spirit world, and made her a street rag-lady, draped in rags as clothes, obscuring her face. This choice, a good one among many, works nicely as there is a reason why beat cops cultivate such denizens of alleys and gutters as sources–they see everything.

The bodies of the street wars pile up in Xtigone as shoes. Shoes without owners is a device that is a constant in the story. And, in fact, the theatre is advertising for patrons to bring gently worn shoes to the performances so that they might distribute them to needful people in Detroit.

One of the thrilling things to take in here is the relevance to the story that Kelley has given the legion of high school and college students doing this play. The original Sophocles play is not out of reach for students, but anyone trying to teach English or Philosophy to teenagers knows ancient Greece is a tough sell to keep their attention.

I could imagine, while watching Xtigone, students perking up in their chairs when teachers pivot or teach Antigone and Xtigone in parallel. It is a powerful work, doing good work for all of us.

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