What a Greek tragedy teaches us about modern migration

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Image source, Kate Stanworth

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe attends a classic drama seeking to overturn prejudices on the Italian island of Sicily, now home to many African migrants.

An audience eagerly awaits outside a theatre on the outskirts of Palermo for the opening night of Greek tragedy Antigone – with a Sicilian twist.

Inside, a troupe of Italian and African migrant actors – a mixture of professionals and amateurs – are finishing their last rehearsal of the production.

Sophocles' play, written around 441 BC, is about the clash of loyalties between family and state in the aftermath of a civil war sparked by the death of the exiled king of Thebes, Antigone's father.

Antigone goes against the command of the new monarch, who declares one of her brothers a traitor and orders him to be left on the battlefield to be eaten by vultures.

She defiantly performs funeral rites and is punished – and eventually dies.

Image source, Kate StanworthImage caption, The cast involves professionals and amateurs and a mix of nationalities

This modern retelling, co-authored by award-winning Italian-Somali novelist Ubah Cristina Ali Farah and Italian theatre director Giuseppe Massa, is about such defiance, about standing up to attitudes in a society sometimes frightened by the recent influx migrants.

They wrote it after holding acting workshops in Sicily within migrant communities.

Massa says the play serves as a warning about how those in power can oppress those they rule.

It challenges people to consider what is morally unacceptable in society – and how to deal with refugees.

Multi-lingual performance

Among those on stage at the Cantieri Culturali Alla Zisa cultural centre – dressed in bright pink robes – is Kate, an 18-year-old born to Nigerian parents in Palermo.

It is the first time she has starred in a play – and she gets to speak in Pidgin and English, at one point saying: "When are you going to notice me, when are you going to know I exist?"

Image source, Kate StanworthImage caption, Fatima arrived in Sicily as a teenager without her parents

The line echoes Kate's own experiences of growing up as a black person in Palermo.

Next to her is Fatima from The Gambia, who has been in several theatre productions in Sicily in recent years.

She is from Serekunda, the largest urban area in The Gambia and arrived in Sicily on her own as a teenager four years ago.

Now in her early twenties, she says she loves being part of this modern version of Antigone, but wishes her mother was able to come and watch her.

The two young women make up the Chorus – who narrate the whole story as none of the main characters appear in this retelling.

The Chorus represent the citizens of Thebes – or for Massa, the people of Palermo.

To reflect Palermo's "linguistic and cultural diversity", the director decided to incorporate different languages, including Italian, Mandinka, French, Pidgin and English, into the performance.

African drumming and music were also used to illustrate the mesh of cultures in Sicily.

Image source, Kate StanworthImage caption, The chorus tell the story of Antigone and her struggles as well as the issues facing women today

Massa believes that theatre plays an important role in helping to bring migrants and refugees into the artistic fabric of society and creating a feeling of belonging.

By centring on their voices, languages and experiences he also wants to challenge anti-migrant sentiments.

He says Sicilians forget that the island has a long history of multiculturalism, and those coming now from places like Senegal, Nigeria and The Gambia are adding to the mix.

The all-female chorus chant in unison to demonstrate the commonality of Palermo's residents.

Their role is to also challenge the status of women in Sicily today by shouting out about such issues as abortion, according to Ali Farah.

Love and acceptance

When the lights go down for the start of the play – about 70 people are in attendance, captivated for the next hour and a half.

Image source, Kate StanworthImage caption, The character of Antigone appears right at the end of production before her death

The performance ends with the first appearance of Antigone, who is played by a young Nigerian actress called Happy.

She walks through the auditorium on to the stage, crying and wailing with music thundering and lights blaring to mark her death.

The audience break out into repeated rounds of clapping as the actors line up looking extremely proud.

Afterwards I catch Kate and Fatima outside, both beaming with big smiles and giddy excitement.

Fatima tells me it was "amazing" – before they both dash back into the theatre to enjoy pizzas with the rest of the cast.

For Massa, Antigone is a play that calls for acceptance and love in society – something his production certainly achieved in its short run in Palermo.

More Letters from Africa:

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  • Visiting a leprosy colony changed this woman's life
  • Why Gambians won't stop voting with marbles
  • How Sudan's generals betrayed my generation
  • Ghana’s role in honouring a US civil rights hero

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