Today’s youth activists will see themselves in Jeff Ho’s “Antigone: 方” at YPT

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Members of the Antigone:方 ensemble; Set & Costume Design by Christine Urquhart; Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherack | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

In the world of Jeff Ho’s new play, Antigone: 方, anyone who questions the state’s traditional doctrine faces “re-education”. Yet despite the potential for dire consequences, Antigone (Jasmine Chen) defends her brother Neikes (Jeff Yung) against the will of her father Kreon (John Ng). Ho’s contemporary adaptation of ancient Greek play Antigone was inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Movement student protests in Hong Kong, as well as the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square (the Chinese-language character 方 added to the title is fang, meaning square.) Ho’s play makes its world premiere this week at Young People’s Theatre (YPT).

“Hope for the future rests in the courage of a young woman,” claims the press release. Impossibly high stakes, it would seem, rest on the slender shoulders of youth. And this rings true, given that young people across the world have been impelled to recognize the power of their voices of late. We see youth regularly commanding media and political attention through their protests to effect change. Last fall, students across Ontario organized a massive walkout to protest the provincial government’s proposed changes to the Ontario Health Curriculum. This spring, they protested funding cuts to education and climate change, and just last week, they took aim at cuts in health care. Like Ho’s Antigone, today’s youth are more informed and activist, rallying for change in person and through social media. In a time of increasing xenophobia, intolerance and violence, a tide of critically-conscious young voices is rising to counter the bile and inspire hope for the future. Ho’s fresh take on an ancient play should resonate with this generation of changemakers and spur them to resist the status quo with the courage of their convictions.  

We spoke with Dora-Award winning playwright Jeff Ho about the origin of Antigone: 方, its connection with his own cultural history, and the siren song of ancient Greek drama.

SesayArts: According to the press release, Antigone: is inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Movement student protests in Hong Kong and the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square. Why did you think that reimagining an ancient Greek play would be a compelling and suitable way to tell your contemporary Asian story?

JH: The idea to adapt Antigone through the lens of the Umbrella Movement, and Tiananmen Square, came to me the night Trump got elected. And tracing it earlier than that, Antigone specifically, was a passion project of the productions’ co-directors, Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo… It’s a play that they dearly loved, and the entire commission began as an educational outreach program, where we worked with theatre school students on Epic Theatre, led by Allen MacInnis, and David Latham. I was brought in to witness their working of Anne Carson’s version of Antigone (the Ivo Van Hove production, not her other adaptation, Antigonick) and to consider a possible adaptation.

All that to say, from the very get go, we knew it was going to be a new Antigone, but the idea of seeing it through a personal and cultural history arrived as I began to see history repeating itself (in terms of heartless, cruel leaders).

And just today, April, 2019, about 4 years after we began exploring this play… Hong Kong-ers are once again stepping out on streets, resisting what they call “the evil law,” towards a new law that will allow extraditions to Mainland China.

SesayArts: This is the second of your reimaginings of Greek plays audiences will be seeing this season. Why do ancient Greek plays have such meaning for you?

Rachel Mutombo, Jasmine Chen and John Ng in Antigone:方; Set & Costume Design by Christine Urquhart; Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherack | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

JH: The Greek plays talk a lot about fate, and as ridiculous as it sounds, part of the reason why I have two Greek adaptations up this season is quite fateful… for both Iphigenia and Antigone, they were plays given to me to adapt… both were passion ideas that I was asked to consider, quite unlike starting a new play entirely from my own imagination. I never sought out to adapt classics, until the opportunities arose, and now I’m hooked. I was given the material to adapt, and had to find a way in, to dig for meaning. And after writing both, I can say that the Greek plays speak to me about how little we’ve evolved as a society, that our primal sense of family, revenge, and justice runs as thick now, as it did then.

SesayArts: The young people who are the target audience of this play might not be familiar with the source material. (And if Antigone: is anything like Iphigenia And The Furies (On Taurian Land), I imagine that won’t matter.) However, what do you hope they will think about, both in terms of the play and the broader themes of activism and standing up for what they believe in?

JH: YPT has a beautiful way of supporting new work, by workshopping early drafts in front of schools. We first shared Antigone  with a group of students about 2 years ago, and even then, they had so much to draw from in their own lives – in the Q&A, they brought up stories or events that the play reminded them of: Residential Schools were mentioned, for example, as was Trump. Not a lot of them knew the history behind Tiananmen, and with this year being the 30th anniversary, I wish for the students to learn more about the Square, and for them to continue connecting their own lives to the activism possible as young citizens. I wish for them to see themselves in Antigone, to consider the strength, courage, and fear that takes hold when they stand up for their beliefs. I wish for them to feel that they have power, in a world that would rather us powerless.

SesayArts: I read that your adaptation of Antigone:  was influenced by a personal story your mother told you about the protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989, while you were in utero. What does your mother think about what you’ve done with her anecdote?

JH: She was in Hong Kong, and marched with other Hong Kong-er’s there… so she did protest, but in relative safety. She takes great pride in telling me that she named me (Ka Kei) after one of the activists that spoke and rallied at the Hong Kong protests, and she has been a source of wisdom, knowledge, and history in our conversations around past and current Chinese/Hong Kong politics.

SesayArts: The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

JH: It is an immense privilege to get the chance to share such a personal and cultural story, through the power of the Antigone story. Something that this experience, and the experience of adapting Iphigenia, taught me is that we can imagine alternate possibilities to the way we live through art… and by seeing stories that reflect, or desire for, a more equitable, just, and HUMANE society, hopefully that propels us into action, towards resisting cruel leaders and unjust governance, now and in the future.

Members of the Antigone:方 ensemble; Set & Costume Design by Christine Urquhart; Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherack | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use

What: Antigone: 方, written by Jeff Ho; Directed by Stephen Colella and Karen Gilodo
Performed by Christopher Allen, Aldrin Bundoc, Jasmine Chen, Simon Gagnon, Soo Garay, Rachel Mutombo, John Ng and Jeff Yung

Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older (grades 7-12)

When: On stage until May 16, 2019; Running Time: 75 years of age and older
* Relaxed Performances: May 9 at 10:15 AM & May 11 at 2:30 PM (also an Audio Described performance)

Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON

Curriculum Connections:

  • English
  • Classical Studies – Classical Civilizations
  • Social Science/History (Government, citizen engagement in politics, citizen influence, government conflict, law, responsible citizenship)
  • Language (Oral communication/discourse, perspective, creating connections with text, audio-visual aids)
  • Arts (Dance and movement as a language, drama elements to communicate meaning, character)

Explore and Learn: Study Guide

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© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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