BWW Review: KLYTEMNESTRA: AN EPIC SLAM POEM at Theater Alliance
There's several places to see Greek theatre in DC right now. It's not uncommon for artists to find relevance in the centuries-old works of Aeschylus and Sophocles and use their stories as a way of examining our lives today. But Klytemnestra: An Epic Slam Poem, now playing at Theater Alliance, does more than simply find truth in an ancient work: it tells a story existing in many places and many times, of now and then, not one or the other but both living and breathing at once.
Klytemnestra is the story of a wronged queen, told here by Dane Figuerosa Edidi as playwright, poet and performer. I would be remiss if I did not stop to mark Edidi's many accomplishments in the District: she is a poet, a playwright, an actor, a choreographer, teacher, advocate, healer. She is the first trans woman of color to be nominated for a Helen Hayes and one of the leading advocate for trans and nonbinary artists. She is our guide through the life and death of Klytemnestra, told here in a way never done before.
Edidi's script both tells Klytemnestra's tale as audiences may know it, and reclaims it and reframes it as the story of an African queen facing down a society that fears her righteousness and passion. Using poetry married to traditional Kabuki and African dance - choreographed herself - Edidi is directed by Danielle A. Drakes with both precision and freedom to work her magic on the audience. Told mostly chronologically, Edidi - playing every character - takes earned time taking us on her journey. We're involved from the start: Edidi invites us to participate in a call-and-response as she names ancestors and asks us to respond "Ashe." In time, we're prompted to name our own, paying tribute to those who walked before us.
Note: as there's no accompanying material in the program, a primer on Klytemnestra and her history may help (she most prominently figures into The Oresteia, a cycle of plays named for the son that murdered her) - that said, I suggest allowing Edidi to take you on the journey first. Any questions you have regarding historical ins-and-outs can come later - this is, in many ways, a purposefully stream-of-consciousness affair, a telling of history grand and personal, and the true power lies in following Edidi's emotional journey, not one of chronology.
Edidi's performance is centered squarely on amplifying Klytemnestra's voice, and the result is a compassionate, multi-layered race to the end of her life. Her story is often framed between that of her husband Agamemnon and her son Orestes, but here, she takes front and center, and Edidi - as Klytemnestra and everyone in her orbit - rightfully relishes her life, and her ability to connect with us through her art. Through each dance, each chapter, we're witness to a life of richness and wonder, of justice and love. I have seen Klytemnestra on stage before and felt sorry for her; I have never seen it and felt the loss of her life until now.
Some elements get in the way of Edidi's incredible work; namely, the decision to have some of her speeches play as recordings in certain moments. On a practical level, this registers; sometimes these are other characters she's playing off of, and, with this being an intensely physical performance, the recordings allow her to fully explore her body in the space. But we are most connected to her when she's speaking right to us with her powerful voice, and the moments we hear her above us are not as striking as when she speaks right to us. An extended sing-a-long near the end of the show is perhaps Edidi's finest moment in the entire 90 minutes - as she leads us to Klytemnestra's impending murder, she improvises a fair deal, laughing and joking with us, almost intentionally delaying the inevitable.
Though Edidi is the sole provider of words, she is not alone; drummer Autumn Angelettie, summoned early by Edidi, provides a heartbeat for Klytemnestra's life, and the connection they share is palpable throughout. In one breathtaking moment, as Edidi lies nearly lifeless on the ground, Angelettie hits her drum one, two, three times, begging, almost daring her to rise again. Debra Kim Sivigny's throne room set and Niomi Collard's ethereal lights take us to a world elsewhere; not quite ancient Greece, not quite Africa, but entirely Edidi and Klytemnestra's present.
Klytemnestra is not exactly Greek tragedy told through Black history, nor is it the reverse; Dane Figuerosa Edidi has taken both these seemingly disparate times and places and found where they connect. This is the strongest case made for revisiting the classics I have seen in a long time. Don't miss it.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Klytemnestra: An Epic Slam Poem runs through June 16 at Theater Alliance, located at Anacostia Playhouse - 2020 Shannon Place SE Washington DC, 20020. For tickets, visit Theater Alliance's website.