A Funny, Blasphemous 'Lysistrata'

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

March 14, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

Shirley Basfield Dunlap is uttering blasphemy at Morgan State University. Quite a few, actually, in Douglas Parker's ''modern translation'' of the classic Greek comedy ''Lysistrata.'' And like Socrates, she's using it to influence young people. But let's hope she doesn't have to drink hemlock. The product of her sacrilege is simply too funny to be punished.

"Lysistrata," one of 11 surviving pieces by the prolific Greek poet Aristophanes, is the story of a plot by Athenian wives to halt the Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes, a fierce patriot, thought it folly that the Athenians and Spartans, Hellas' strongest city-states, were gouging each other in a war that lasted 27 years while their Persian enemies gathered to attack all Greeks. A satirist who could best all comers at the annual theater festivals, Aristophanes centered the action on Lysistrata, the wife of one of the first magistrates of Athens. The plot was to persuade all the married females of the warring cities to barricade themselves away from their husbands, refusing sex until they agreed to make peace.

The blasphemy? Africanizing the story. Ms. Dunlap, the Morgan State theater teacher who directed this farce, said she decided to do it after she asked her class about the origin of theater. The class dutifully identified Greek theater as the precursor to art and culture, repeating what most modern textbooks say.

Molefi Asante, the energetic father of Afrocentric education, would be proud of the teacher's response. Taking the class on an excursion through the African origins of some of ancient Greece's mythology, Ms. Dunlap apparently used the incident as a springboard to launch an exploration of the strong ties between old Hellas and Africa's cultural centers. This modern "Lysistrata," decorated with African tribal costumes on some actors, spiced up with African rhythms and dance and sprinkled with timely anachronisms, is the result.

The program, which opened Thursday at the Murphy Fine Arts Center's Turpin-Lamb Theatre, in part, has these accompanying notes:

"Many people asked me why 'Lysistrata,' which does not necessarily follow the norm of most of Theatre Morgan's production. I had many choices for the spring production, but I felt it was time to do this one. . . .

"The Egyptian goddess, Hathor, was the image used for the Greek goddess Venus or Aphrodite, symbol of love. Goddess of Chastity, Artemis, was an African woman. The Greek Goddess of Wisdom was [Athena], an African princess. These are some of the African women who were worshiped and praised and paid homage to in Greek art and culture. Thus, the reason for the question and also for this production of 'Lysistrata' (she who disbands armies) -- to give added insight."

If that isn't enough to raise the hackles of the new-age crowd defending the 19th-century notion that Africans contributed little modern culture, the performance itself should finish the job nicely.

The shadow battle behind screens as the play opens "early one morning in a remote location in Athens, 411 B.C., 20 years into the Peloponnesian War," is pure African ritualized combat, with booming drum rhythms to liven up the action. The character Lysistrata, Morgan English major Cher Jey Cuffie, comes out wearing short, unstraightened hair. She carries the dominant role well, seconded by the arresting sensuality of Kleonike, theater major Anissa L. Chalmers.

The chorus of old men, led by Craig L. Scott, plays a funny and convincing counterpoint to all the women's activities. The men's doddering complaints, and the zippy responses of the Koryphaiols of Women, Romona J. Young, keep the play moving at a sharp pace.

Dressing the Athenian and Spartan ambassadors in African garb was an inspiration. Old Aristophanes, who knew the connections between the intellectual leaders of his society and the African scholars at Timbuktu and other centers, probably wouldn't have been disturbed. Aristophanes loved to attack standing icons, especially those thought to be above challenge by anybody. He beat up on Socrates, Euripides and most of the Sophist crowd as well as Athens' rulers, so a little heresy in presenting his work probably would have amused him.

The neoclassic scholars trying to drown out the questions raised by persistent dissenters like Professor Asante assuredly would be upset, but that's OK.

It's a good show, scheduled to continue tonight at eight, Sunday at three and again the following weekend. And no matter where you come down in the scholars' argument over ancient history, a good show is always worth enduring a bit of blasphemy to watch.

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