Performance organized by classics professor provides outlet for high school students in Champaign-Urbana

High school is a time for learning, making friends, and discovering passions and hobbies, but for many students, it’s overshadowed by something no teenager should have to worry about: gun violence in their hallways and in their community.

It’s not an easy thing to talk about, whether you’re 16-years-old or past your teenage years, but classics professor Angeliki Tzanetou was determined to make it a little easier for students in Champaign-Urbana to share their experiences.

“My collaborators and I wanted to do something to react to the rise of gun violence and the lives it was cutting down in our own community, some of them students,” said Tzanetou.

That’s how the Xtigone project came about. In collaboration with Sam Smith, director of civic engagement and social practice at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Tzanetou organized a staged reading and discussion of Nambi E. Kelley’s Xtigone, a contemporary adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone, as well as a series of workshops for students. 

Smiling woman in black shirt
Angeliki Tzanetou, professor of classics at the staged reading of Xtigone

“I originally thought of working with high school students on Antigone, so that they could have an outlet and find ways to speak with one another about what they were experiencing in their daily lives at school: new metal detectors, losing friends and young people around them, and to support our schools,” said Tzanetou.

But she wanted a play that was closer to our contemporary realities, which led her to Xtigone. It’s an urban adaptation of Antigone—the only African American adaptation of the play by Sophocles—that speaks directly to the trauma of gun violence and the need for political change.

“It takes the ancient story of Antigone and relocates it to a modern-day Chicago, where two brothers are killed in a drive-by shooting, and their sister decides that she wants to unbury one of them, to reveal the ugly truth and the horror behind gun violence, the way that it affects young people and young communities,” said co-director Paul O’Mahony, founder and director of Out of Chaos Theatre in London.

Students from area high schools met regularly after school and over weekends to familiarize themselves with the material. After several weeks of rehearsals, they took to the stage at Central High School in Champaign for the staged reading. Tzanetou had a few hopes for them going into Friday night’s performance.

“I was hoping they would find a space where they could be with one another, bond, and start talking about the rise in gun violence and what it feels like for them, going to school every day, doing drills, experiencing fights, and a couple of lockdowns,” said Tzanetou. “Mostly to talk to each other and feel like they are not powerless.”

They did that and more.

“It was amazing,” said Tzanetou. “They came together as a group and found it empowering to be able to talk about gun violence. They spoke about wanting to bring about change—emphasizing that nothing has changed in a long time. They found it educational and also loved that it was collaborative, that it was not competitive.”

The students weren’t the only ones who walked away from the performance with strong feelings.

“[The community response was] very strong. They were moved by the play. They found it powerful, necessary, and thought it moved things forward with hope,” said Tzanetou. “They loved the staged reading, and they especially loved the fact that the students were so articulate about their own thoughts and feelings about the performance.” 

Group of students act out play
Charence Higgins (co-director) working with students taking part in Xtigone project

While the staged reading and discussion of Xtigone was the culminating event, it wasn’t the only piece of the puzzle. Tzanetou and Smith also organized a series of workshops on Antigone, Xtigone, and adaptation, run by co-directors O’Mahony and Charence Higgins, who’s earning her master of fine arts degree from UIUC this spring.

“They were a huge success,” said Tzanetou. “Some students came to all four. They were invested, they performed, discussed their ideas around how they acted out the characters’ speech, and explored a wide array of performing emotions.”

The conversation isn’t stopping here, either. Tzanetou said she and Smith are beginning an ongoing collaboration with O’Mahony and Out of Chaos Theatre, who they’ve worked with in the past to put on a virtual performance of Aeschylus’ Suppliants.

“This is the first in what we hope will be a series of projects working with ancient stories and adaptations that speak to modern issues and are really important ways of getting people to think about the ways they can make change in their community,” said O’Mahony.

While co-director Higgins will be moving on from UIUC soon, the impact she had on this project and the students involved will remain. 

"I would like to acknowledge Charence for her role in organizing the team of students, for her role as dramaturg, and for approaching the difficult issue of violence and political change in the many conversations she had with our group of student performers," said Tzanetou. "She is a talented and highly skilled director, actor, and teacher. We could not have done it without her and wish her a long, successful career. We were very fortunate to have her and Paul O'Mahony, who were a dream team for Xtigone."

Tzanetou said while it was difficult to bring this project together for the first time, she treated it as a learning experience, one she’ll be able to draw from moving forward, and one that benefited from its collaborative nature and widespread support.

“I would like to thank warmly the university and our community sponsors for supporting the Xtigone project generously and enthusiastically. We are all so grateful,” said Tzanetou. “I am also grateful to all who participated and look forward to bringing this knowledge forward and investing in theater and community-based projects. To quote Luis Alfaro who was here about a month ago: ‘Everything is possible in community.’”

The Xtigone project received media coverage from several local outlets, including WCIA 3 News and the News-Gazette. You can read WCIA's article recapping the staged reading here. Follow this link to read the News-Gazette's article previewing the event.

Sponsors of the event included the Department of Classics, the Program in Comparative and World Literature, the Department of English, the Department of Linguistics, the College of LAS, the European Union Center, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Humanities Research Institute, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, the Champaign County Community Coalition and its Racial Justice Committee, the Champaign Unit 4 School District, and the Central High School PTSA.

Dania De La Hoya Rojas