The Suppliants Project Ukraine. Aeschylus and refugees on a football field

“We are not criminals…” Kristina was saying

“We are refugees,” Bohdana added, “seeking asylum.”

Kristina Obluchynska and Bohdana Yakobchuk were two of the seven women from Ukraine who were standing yesterday In the middle of the football stadium of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, speaking these lines from “The Suppliants,” written by Aeschylus 2,500 years ago. They were performing,  alongside three well-known professional American actors, Anthony Edwards, Keith David and Tate Donovan, in the latest innovation from Theater of War Productions.

Left to right: Keith David as Danaus, father of the fleeing women; Anthony Edwards as King Pelasgus, Tate Donovan as head of the invaders

Watch the full video below

A little background (borrowed from the write-up when Theater of War won one of the  American Connected Theater Awards for Pandemic Year 2): 

Since 2009, theater artist Bryan Doerries, well-versed in Ancient Greek, has been presenting readings of classic plays, primarily those by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with increasingly starry casts, to stimulate discussion about current issues facing specific communities. His company, now called Theater of War Productions,  had its most high-profile success with “Antigone in Ferguson,” an adaptation of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old tragedy, inspired by the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The adaptation was first performed in Ferguson, then taken on the road – where I saw it in 2017 in a playground in the shadow of the Howard public housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Theater of War Productions, serving as emcee of “The Suppliant Project” at the University of Notre Dame football stadium.

The point of their performances has always been to prompt the discussion afterward by invited guests and members of the general audience.

In May, 2020, Theater of War began presenting its projects live online, and Doerries  had a revelation: Zoom turned out to be a surprisingly useful platform to encourage such community engagement. Two and a half years later, Theater of War Productions yesterday presented “The Suppliants Project: Ukraine” as its first-ever hybrid production – simultaneously live at the Notre Dame football stadium  and around the world on Zoom.

The view from Zoom

The event began with the 45-minute reading of the play (using Doerries’ new English translation of the Ancient Greek text, with captions in a choice of English or Ukrainian.) The plot is basic. A chorus of women, having fled a forced marriage to their cousins in their homeland (Egypt), gather at the border of the Greek city-state of Argos, and ask King Pelasgus for asylum — to “receive us with kindness” and refuse to hand them over when the “sons of Aegyptus” (“a brutal horde of men”) arrive to retrieve them.
“That is no small request,” King Pelasgus replies. “You are asking me to start a war.”
But he consults the citizens of Argos, and they unanimously agree to protect the women. Sure enough, “the sons of Aegyptus…come for blood, in dark-timbered ships with an army of heartless men.”

The Ukrainian performers are students from Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv who are studying at the University of Notre Dame: Bohdana Yakobchuk, Soffia Dobko, Kristina Bohdanova Obluchynska

Anybody even half-listening could see the relevance of this ancient play to two central issues in which Ukraine in particular is embroiled – the plight of refugees, and the invasion by a foreign force. But “The Suppliants” had particular resonance for the panel of a half dozen refugees  who were the first to be called upon for their reaction. One was a physician from Ukraine, but the others were from Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Bosnia, Nicaragua, and Vietnam – each reciting the lines that struck them the hardest. Most cited:

“We are not criminals sent into exile, publicly banished for spilling blood. We are refugees seeking asylum from violence …”

For the man from Afghanistan, the line that most spoke to him was the women’s urgent talk about being in “our moment of need” — as are millions of Afghans. “Afghans are the largest group of ‘suppliants,’ if you will, in Greece, and across Europe.”

To the refugee from Burkina Faso, it was “‘how can a bird be pure if it preys on one of its own?’ That line speaks directly to what’s happening in Burkina Faso right now.”

Then Bryan Doerries opened up the conversation to both the in-person audience in the cold outdoors of Indiana, and to the indoors of individuals watching from across the United States and in Ukraine. (“Thank you for giving me the floor, and glory to Ukraine,” one young woman said from Kyiv, after she spoke in her native language, translated by an interpreter.) Many mentioned the lines near the end of the play:

“Strangers entering a new country are never truly welcome.People are always ready to blame those who speak in foreign tongues for all of their problems.”

Other resonant lines from the play:

“Fear begets more fear, if left unchecked.” (“When I go home to my small community in Indiana, there’s a lot of that.”)

“You have left me to wrestle with questions that have no easy answers.”

The most common comment: “Twenty-five hundred years ago  — and nothing has changed.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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