Through dance, mime and with drums dominating a striking, original score, Howard University's Ira Aldridge Theater transfers "Antigone" of Sophocles from Greece to Africa. The result is often exciting and impressive, and I recommend a visit during its brief run through Sunday.
Using the translation of Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, Joseph Walker's concept is titled "Antigone Africanus." His staging is better than his Latin, for the title should be "Antigone Africana," to employ Virgil's usage when adding Latin modifiers to Greek names. If he stuck to Greek: "Antigone Africane," Walker explains that he considers Creon the central figure and hence uses the masculine, us ending, an argument into which I will not tangle further.
Creon, the dictator, true enough, is the pivot around whom the action spins. Creon has forbidden proper burial rites for Plyneices, whose sisters are split on how to read. Ismene will obey Creon, but Antigone sees her brother's burial as a human, spiritual, not governmental, matter and is willing to die for her forbidden actions. But, as the mourners will sing: "There is no happiness where there is no wisdom/No wisdom but in submission to the gods. Big words are always punished/And proud men in old age learn to be wise."
The concept of an African setting stresses the universality of the classical Greek mind. In Walker's setting, the costumes of Mary M. Warren, and especially in the five-performer music by Dorothy Dinroe, the transference to Africa quickens the mind. The dance and mime in Walker's choreography (and in the Vera Katz coaching) is not only often striking, but adds imaginative excitement to the timeless story. Anouilh's version during the German occupation, "Antigone and the Tyrant," was a sensation for Parisians and the resistance; Katharine Cornell's subsequent U.S. production remains memorable).
As Antigone, Vicki Lynn Johnson (who alternates with Estina Carlette Baker in the part) was downright exciting on opening night. At moments she achieved a plateau of startling freedom, her small supply body quite marvelous in movement and her voice well-managed for clarity and diction.
Diction, alas, is the chink in this production. All too often the words are mangled into unintelligibility. But the music, movement and some of Walker's pictorial patterns (especially when Antigone's soul leaves her body) are distinctive. This is an impressive record for the Aldridge stage.