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As one passes from Anacostia Playhouse’s front lobby into its blackbox theater through a narrow passage made vibrant with patterned cloth and colorful paints, a subtle scent enters the nostrils, perhaps incense or perfumes carried by the swirling fog that fills the air. Smell is rarely a sense that modern theater makers seek to evoke, but smell’s transportive nature has often played a role in sacred ritual, and one might recall how in many corners of the world, at many points of history, the performing arts have drawn upon ritual.
In a voiceover, playwright and performer Dane Figueroa Edidi invites the audience to acknowledge the native Piscataway and Nacotchtank (from whose name “Anacostia” is an Anglicized variant) who once lived in the area, and, “to hold the mirror to yourself.” A priestess (Edidi) then enters, consecrating the space as a “cemetery where black art was made and died” and offering libations to black trans women (as Edidi identifies) and black women in the arts (ditto) who have passed, before a queen of antiquity, Klytmnestra, speaks through her.
Klytmnestra’s story has been told in bits and pieces by different authors of classical Greece. Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis tells how her husband Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so that the Greek fleet would have favorable winds as they sailed to Troy. Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, begins with the vengeance Klytmnestra dealt her husband in his bath upon his return. Other stories written by diverse hands, not always consistent, abound. But Edidi’s Klytmnestra wishes to tell her tale in her own voice from conception, when Leda, Queen of Sparta was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, to her death at the hands of her son Orestes, who, like his sister Elektra, can forgive their father for their sister’s slaughter, but cannot forgive their mother. (No spoiler warnings for a stories written down over two-and-a-half millennia ago, though Edidi gives some of her characters a modicum of hope that Aeschylus never did.)
It is a family epic but also a political one: Its beginning and end bookend the decade-long Trojan War. Edidi’s telling Klytmnestra’s story is itself political (her identity as a demi-goddess is a hyphenated one): Like black women in American history and literature, and trans people worldwide, Klytmnestra, even when portrayed sympathetically, is often regarded as powerless, or as an instrument of vengeance, or as a member of another protagonist’s supporting cast. Likewise, following a tradition that began with Euripides’ The Trojan Women, the fall of Troy is not treated as a victorious conclusion to a long war, but as the genocide we would recognize it as were it to have happened in our lifetimes.
Edidi may be using the idiom of slam poetry for her form, with a focus on visceral imagery (both erotic and violent), a promiscuous mixture of both classical and contemporary oratory, but she is also a dancer and choreographer. Her movement technique integrates varied influences, from ecstatic West African dance styles to the statuesque poses of Kabuki to precise undulations of her arms and fluttering of fingers. This control makes every character in the story immediately recognizable in gesture. Director Danielle A. Drakes and Theater Alliance have assembled a small army of skillful collaborators to support Edidi’s vision on stage. Playing a goblet-shaped drum, Autumn Angelettie provides skillful, yet understated accompaniment that supports but never competes with Edidi’s dance and oration. Likewise, sound designer Kenny Neal extends Edidi’s own voice, often creating a sound collage of her characters’ voices.
Debra Kim Sivigny does double duty designing both the set and costumes. While clothing Edidi in bold black, white, and red patterns (the long, weighted kimono draped over the flowing white skirt and midriff-baring top is gorgeous), she contrasts it with soft tertiary colors of the fabric with which she dresses the set’s walls, columns, and throne. Niomi Collard’s lighting design cuts through the undulating mists that fill the air, enhancing the already varied color palette.
Artists will continue to return to classical myth because they represent a tapestry, with threads of family dysfunction and abuse, fantastical occurrences, political injustice, and long intergenerational vendettas that can be unraveled and rewoven again and again, with new threads, new patterns. Edidi’s production proves that truth.
To June 16 at 2020 Shannon Place SE $30–$40. (202) 290-3828. theateralliance.com.