Theater of War

A Dramatic Reading of Scenes from Sophocles’ ‘Ajax,’ version adapted by Bryan Doerries

Bryan Doerries in the center, Antonio Vargas, Spanish co-facilitator, in the left, and panelists.

It happened in front of the Dunkin Donuts at E. 149th St. and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, at 9:30 p.m. A middle-aged black man threw a can at a moving taxi. I shook my head and kept walking, thinking it was just another unfortunate New York City mentally ill or drunk person, but a few seconds later I turned back and looked for him. He was coming my way, in the direction of the 149th St. Grand Concourse subway station.

This is how I recall the conversation:

-“Why did you do that?”

-“He disrespected me, and I am black, and I am tired of being disrespected.”

-“Why did he disrespected you?.”

-“He wanted to overcharge me.”

-“That is why you threw the can to the car?”

-“I’m angry and I’m sad.”

-“You are sad. That’s why, and you feel no one listens to you.”

-“I was born in the Bronx. In the projects.”

-“And I understand it is not easy.”

-“Why did you approach me?. People don’t come and talk to me.”

-“Because I just saw this play, a mythological play about this man who commits suicide, and I just want people to live in peace.”

-“I was wrong, and when I’m wrong, I’m wrong; when I’m right, I’m right. Respect can take you a long way. I’ll buy you coffee; you can learn a great deal from me. I’m very smart.”

I’m sure this man could teach me lots of things, but I already know the most important. As the astrologer Chani Nicholas puts it: “It is our collective healing that every issue we face needs desperately.”

Normally I don’t talk to people in the street who do this kind of thing. I’ve been told they are dangerous, and you don’t know how they might react or what they might do to you. Nevertheless, I always believe in the power of empathy and conversation to solve conflicts. More often than not, people seen as dangerous or crazy are just asking for help, desperately. The dramatic reading of scenes from Sophocles’ “Ajax,” adapted by Bryan Doerries, at the Pregones Theater in Mott Haven, the Bronx, just confirmed it.

Doerries is a self-described evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today. He founded Theater of War, a project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays to service members, veterans, and their caregivers and families to help them initiate conversations about the visible and invisible wounds or war.

Program notes summarized the plot: “Sophocles’ ‘Ajax’ tells the story of a fierce warrior who slips into a depression near the end of The Trojan War, after losing his best friend, Achilles. Struggling with survivor’s guilt and feeling betrayed by his command after being passed over for the honor of Achilles’ armor, Ajax attempts to murder his commanding officers, fails, and –ultimately — takes his own life. The play tells the story of the events leading up to his suicide, as well as how his wife and troops attempt to intervene before it’s too late.”

New York City has a project called PAIR (Public Artist In Residence), which commissions artists to work alongside public agencies. Doerries is the latest, collaborating with the Department of Veterans’ Services and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Theater of War will take theater projects and community conversations addressing critical public health and social issues to all five boroughs. The free events will take place in more than 60 venues across New York City. Teatro Pregones hosted the first one on May 6 and is going to be the project’s headquarters in the Bronx, as Yaremis Félix, the theater’s artistic and operations associate, told me.

After the reading, four panelists directly affected by the issue talked briefly about their personal experiences and how they related to Sopohcles’ play.

Miguel A. Rodriguez, Director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Manhattan Vet Center, commented: In the reading, we heard Ajax saying, “I was blind and I couldn’t see the signs.” Rodriguez explained that luckily he didn’t lose battle “buddies” in the field, but he did lose some to suicide, which, as Sophocles’ play shows, is taboo.

“This reading is 2,000 years old, but the same problems Ajax faced we are facing now: 8.000 veterans per year commit suicide,” said Gonzalo Duran, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and executive officer of Devil Dog USA Inc.

Tanya Thomas is a Gold Star Wife who lost her husband and the father of her two children to a brain injury. “Tecmessa pleaded with her husband to let her help him,” she said. “When one person is going through any kind of crisis in a family, it becomes an issue of everybody.”

“When Tecmessa screams, she then says she is wretched. That’s how you feel.” “You need family and friends to blend together.” Thomas said she overcame the loss of her husband through faith, community, and family.

The reading enabled Doerries and the Spanish co-facilitator, Antonio Vargas, to pose powerful questions. The dramatization allowed audiences members to share deep-seated commentaries and experiences. It taught us about the catalyst force of theater and the classics to connect with our emotions and allow us to express them.

“There is a sense of outrage,” explained Daniel Stillwell, readjustment counselor working with people struggling with Posttraumatic Stress disorder and depression at the Bronx Vet Center.

“Veterans feel patronized; they feel dishonored and not understood.”, Daniel Stillwell.

Talking about Ajax and U.S. veterans, Stillwell said, “He is not crazy; he is just honorable.”

What was Sophocles’ objective in writing this play and presenting it to his community in Athens 2,500 years ago?

Audience members said Sophocles' was trying to convey the importance of taking care of one another, not being ashamed, that we are all more similar than we care to admit, and that sometimes people are in such pain that they don’t even know how to express it.

Doerries added: “Sometimes, when people are in acute pain, they aren’t aware of the pain they are inflicting on others.”

“Not being recognized is one of the things that made Ajax go crazy,” said a woman in the audience. There is also, the experience of feeling betrayed. “Betrayal is the wound that cuts the deepest.” She concluded.

Doerries posed another question: If Ajax were someone you knew and loved, what would you say? What would you do?. A young woman in the audience, who said she was a student at the nearby Hostos Community College, explained in Spanish that she met a girl who was in distress and wanted to commit suicide. She was in the bathroom with a razorblade. Then the woman told her: “There is nothing worth you disappearing from the world.” The girl opened up and said that she wasn’t doing well in school, that her mother didn’t love her and that her father had abandoned them. The woman told her: “I’m your mother, I’m your guardian right now. You can die, but from the sky you are going to see my suffering.”

The audience applauded her story and the help she had given.

Doerries asked a third question, referring to a line in the text: “Twice the pain is twice the sorrow.” What does it mean?

Some veterans double their pain with drugs, and alcohol, and a loss of control when they return from the battlefield. Sometimes therapists like Stillwell use prolonged exposure therapy to try to make them feel what they numb. Therapists have them revisit some episodes as part of the healing process.

Another audience member said it is important to speak to them, and to anyone in pain for that matter, in a language they know and understand. Sometimes it will be without words, just presence.

Doerries rounded out the thoughts everyone expressed, trying to paint a bigger picture so the audience could share the feeling and connect it with the reading. “Approaching people in the way they can hear,” he said. ”Having respect for what they can’t hear.”

After his experience doing readings in prisons and on military bases, Doerries reminded the audience that “coming together as a community and facing some of the darkest issues of our humanity brings joy, camaraderie and affection.”