Thursday at the Bayview Opera House, Bryan Doerries staged a one-night-only reading of the Ancient Greek dramatist Euripides’ 2,500-year-old play The Madness of Hercules. For Doerries, the Brooklyn-based artistic director of Theater of War Productions, the reading itself was secondary -- almost beside the point. As he put it, “The audience is everything.”
The event, titled Hercules in the Bayview, is part of a series of staged readings that Theater of War presents to different communities around the country. Self-described as a “social impact company,” it uses theater to address a wide range of social issues. Doerries brought Hercules to the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood to initiate a discussion, he said, “about the timeless experience of violence.”
After the reading ended, a group of five panelists, chosen for their ties to the Bayview community, sat together on stage to talk about their experience of violence in the neighborhood. To focus the discussion, Doerries had instructed them to base their remarks on what moved them about the ancient play.
The figure of Hercules is best known today from his appearances in pop culture pictures. Disney drew him in bright primary colors. Kellan Lutz and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson attempted to embody him with their outsized chests. He’s the most masculine of Greek heroes, vanquishing armies, enduring his labors and subduing monsters.
But Euripides’ play is set after his famous exploits when, in an inexplicable fit, he kills his wife and children. The Madness of Hercules depicts a life that’s been suffused with and motivated by violence. The play’s mournful tone examines the emotional aftermath of living such an aggrieved life, as well as the devastation of carrying on after your loved ones are dead.
Gwen Woods was one of the community panelists on stage. In Dec. 2015, her son Mario was killed on 3rd Street in the Bayview. Woods spoke eloquently about her grief, finding parallels between Hercules’ request for his children’s burial rites and her own. “We buried that child with all the dignity he deserved that I wanted,” Woods said.
Another panelist, Takija Gardner, is the executive director at Bayview-Hunters Point YMCA. She grew up in the neighborhood and lost her brother to violence, “He was murdered by his friends,” Gardner said. She cited Hercules’ lament “I’m cursed by the gods,” but brought it down to earth, applying it to her own experience. “I think about structures and institutions and how young black men in this community have to go through so many barriers to figure out what their worth is,” Gardner said.
When the panelists had finished their initial thoughts and reactions to the play, Doerries opened the floor for questions and comments. Audience member Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson spoke first, followed by Sala-Haquekyah Chandler. Both took the opportunity to remind those present that their grief, and shared that their ensuing feelings of rage hadn’t abated. Johnson mentioned the date of his nephew Oscar Grant’s death at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station on in Jan. 2009. Chandler also spoke about her loss: her son Yalani was killed in Hayes Valley in Jan. 2015.
As each witness or relative to violence told his or her story, it became evident that Hercules in the Bayview wasn’t designed as a problem-solving event. The real life tragedies and remembrances of loved ones lost impacted the hushed audience more than the star-studded reading, involving Frances McDormand, Linda Powell, James Carpenter and Reg. E. Cathey. Intent on encouraging a shared public catharsis, Doerries the theater director achieved his goal.