This week, I’ve been researching and writing for our Antigone program note assignment. The play that I’m dramaturging is Antigone in New York by Janusz Glowacki. Glowacki also wrote Hunting Cockroaches, which was produced here at BU in 2016, directed by Stephen Pick. In Cockroaches, he writes about the strife of poverty, but specifically uses humor as a tool to get the audience warmed up for the hard truths he serves about American society. He does the same with Antigone in New York. It’s a story about three homeless immigrants (one Puerto Rican, one Russian, and one Polish) who live in Tompkins Square Park in Lower Manhattan in 1990. The play itself has moments when the characters make me laugh out loud, but the subject of homelessness is no laughing matter. In my research, I’ve discovered the challenge of dramaturging about an issue that makes me unsettled.
This play gives the audience the opportunity to question their understanding about how homelessness and poverty intertwine, but at the end of the day it is purely a story set on stage that is, to a degree, entertaining to watch. Yes, it ends with a call to action: the Policeman calls out that “Current statistics now say that the number of homeless in New York City is growing and that by the end of this year, for every three hundred New Yorkers there will be one homeless person which means that in this theater there is at least one prospective homeless person. And you know who you are. Have a nice evening.”
That’s it. The play ends there, with a statement designed to provoke, to insight. But, who could say if after I left the theatre, I would have felt compelled to do more than just bear witness to this story? Sure, I would have learned a lot — but if this play had been produced without a strong dramaturgical eye or the choice to give the audience more information about the current state of homelessness, I don’t know how much it would have stayed on my brain. Sadly, that proves that this issue is one that is easy to normalize, and that is why the dramaturgy is so necessary!
My research has taught me that there are PLENTY of ways for individuals to contribute to improving the systems that are designed to look out for marginalized people who may be at risk for homelessness, and the systems of aide for the people who are already there. This has taught me that if I want “making a difference” to be one of my goals in my art, I have to do the work to know enough about the subject matter to see how it’s actively affecting members of society who are not as privileged as I. I don’t want to be a lazy artist or audience member or person.
In addition, helping give voice to marginalized people is a complicated act. In the digital age, we have outlets, some as popular as Humans of New York, which is a platform for telling the stories of all types of people, some of whom have endured plenty of systematic oppression, and some of whom are homeless. Photographer Brandon Stanton is noble in his activism with the wide variety of stories he puts on this platform, but at the end of the day, isn’t his position of privilege as a white man who is making money from this venture exploitative towards the people he is representing? He takes a photo, publishes a story, and for some of his viewers, that’s probably the only way they interact with some of these types of people. Yes, he’s giving a TON of visibility (18 million likes worth) to a lot of people who maybe otherwise wouldn’t have much attention on the internet, and that is a huge step itself. But does he give compensation to any of these individuals? Do any of the proceeds from his book sales and other revenue go towards organizations that work in social justice? I don’t know specifically what the details are, but certainly this platform is solely based on story telling, not promoting organizations or activists. I don’t mean to fault Stanton solely as an individual, but I do question activism on social media and how it may be giving audiences a “free pass,” like they’re engaging with the issue without actually engaging in it.
Interacting with Antigone In New York has given me more motivation to investigate further into what I, as an artist in the process of my education (which I will never be done with) can do to widen my perspective AND take concrete steps to being an active participant in society’s progress.