(Suzanne Cords’s article appeared in DW, 1/27; Photo from DW.)

Activist Kay Sara portrays Antigone in Milo Rau’s modern-day tragedy about the Indigenous people’s fight for survival.

Ancient Greek poet Sophocles couldn’t have possibly imagined that his tragedy “Antigone” would remain topical some 2,400 years after the play was first performed.

“Antigone” tells the story of Creon, a tyrant who wants to stay in power at all costs. Convinced that she is doing the right thing according to the gods, Antigone defies him. The matter does not end well. Creon condemns her to be buried alive, but Antigone evades judgment by committing suicide.

A 21st-century Antigone

Swiss playwright and director Milo Rau has brought the mythical Antigone into the present. 

Rau is famous for his political projects. Among others, he staged a play examining the Rwandan genocide, and he focused on the inhumane situation in the southern Italian Matera refugee camp in his film “The New Gospel.”

His modern version of “Antigone” deals with the destruction of the Amazon.

Indigenous actress and activist Kay Sara plays the lead role, alongside members of the activist group Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), which is the largest landless workers’ movement in the world.

They are fighting for a reform of  Brazil’s land ownership system, and for a fairer society.

The topics explored by the project include greed for profit, the overexploitation of nature, and displacement. Rau and his team had already traveled to the Brazilian state of Para in 2020 to work on “Antigone.”

At the time, Jair Bolsonaro had been in office as president for a year. He had already disempowered the governmental protection agency National Indigenous People Foundation, FUNAI, and appointed an environment minister who denied climate change. Bolsonaro also stated that he would welcome the landless workers’ movement with “a loaded gun.”

This political background inspired Rau to stage a new edition of Sophocles’ classic tragedy.

The production was set to premiere in April 2020, on a street in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, where police officers once murdered numerous landless people. The production was also supposed to head to Vienna afterwards. But the coronavirus pandemic shelved those plans.

Instead, Kay Sara gave an impressive speech on the internet: “I would have played Antigone, who rebels against the ruler Creon … The chorus would have consisted of survivors of a massacre of landless people by the Brazilian government. We would have performed this new Antigone on an occupied road through the Amazon — those forests on fire. It would not have been a play, but a political action. Not an act of art, but an act of resistance: against that state power that is destroying the Amazon.”

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