“Medea” Gets a Makeover
How an ambitious, intergenerational collaboration re-envisioned a classic Greek tragedy for our times.
In mid-April, audiences at Goodhart Theater were treated to a staging of Media/Medea, an adaptation of Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea, re-envisioned for the 21st century from a Black perspective. A week later, a second set of performances took place, this time in the Black Box Theater at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).
For the student actors and tech crew, this was not only a chance to participate in the premiere of a play by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright James Ijames—of Fat Ham fame—but also an opportunity to interact with peers from a different educational setting. Half of the students in the production were from Bryn Mawr and Haverford and half from CCP.
The staging of the play marked the finale of Greek Drama/Black Lives, a larger yearlong collaboration between the institutions.
As Classics Professor Catherine Conybeare, who was principal investigator for the American Council of Learned Societies grant that funded the project, explains, a key goal of Greek Drama/Black Lives was to “strengthen the connections between CCP and Bryn Mawr and also to shine a light on what we can learn today from the classics.”
The play was produced by the Theater Program at Bryn Mawr, led by co-PI and Chair of the Arts Catharine Slusar, who brought Ijames to the project. “Theater, with its ability to share perspectives, is at the core of what it is to be human,” Slusar says. “This project uses theater to draw a line from the classics to the present, challenging us along the way.”
In addition to the play, the Greek Drama/Black Lives project included a playwriting class, a partnership with middle schoolers at E.M. Stanton School in South Philadelphia, and a theoretical and experiential graduate seminar.
“James Ijames is at this point a playwright of extraordinary distinction and he is also one of the most generous and collaborative people with whom I have ever worked.” says Conybeare.
Media/Medea follows the character of Medea (Monet Debose) as she grapples with her husband Jason’s (Akeem Davis) betrayal and explores how the couple’s teenage children respond to this upheaval in their lives.
In transposing Medea to a modern setting, Ijames, an associate professor of theatre at Villanova University, looked to popular culture for inspiration. The chorus, a mainstay of Greek tragedy, still plays a leading role, but this time they are part of the social media rumor mill. For the character of Medea, Ijames was inspired by Norma Desmond, the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard, and Porsha Williams from Real Housewives of Atlanta.
“It’s great to see somebody who’s coming from the same space as me, especially from the Black perspective.” — Michael Mclaughlin, Community College of Philadelphia student
“Media/Medea is not simply an adaptation; it is a transformation,” says Slusar. “Ijames has taken the text and reset it in our time, putting the children in the center of the tragedy. He asks, when a famous couple divorces epically, with every minute captured on social media, what happens to the children?”
The adaptation resonated deeply with the student actors. “Whether in ancient Greece or modern-day America, certain themes endure,” says Quinn Eli, curriculum coordinator for theater at CCP.
“When you’re talking about the impact of revenge and betrayal and dislocation on a family,” says Eli, “who among us can’t easily imagine the impact that would have on our own family? And then you add the element of social media and that kind of cultural scrutiny, and you’ve got something that continues to resonate.”
Michael McLaughlin, a CCP theater major, agrees: “I responded immediately with such excitement because he has this really interesting way of writing very simple language that says so much. It’s great to see somebody who’s coming from the same space as me, especially from the Black perspective, and can really figure out how to say a lot without a lot of words.”
“To watch these students from each institution be challenged by each other, be celebrated by each other, is really, really exciting.” — Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges
For Regan Riehl ’24, an English major minoring in theater, engaging with Media/Medea with the rest of the cast proved to be a fascinating process of investigation. “The more you read it, the more there is to pull out of it and to look at,” says Riehl, who played Glauke, the princess for whom Jason abandons Medea.
“Every time a group of humans gets to work on a brand-new something, it’s magic,” says Raelle Myrick-Hodges, founder of Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre Company, who directed Media/Medea, adding that what made this especially magical was the collaboration between Bryn Mawr and CCP.
“To watch these students from each institution be challenged by each other, be celebrated by each other, is really, really exciting,” she says. “And what they’re bringing to the table is a new understanding of an author’s work, because you have 15 people who all think differently.”
Lead artist Akeem Davis, a Barrymore- and Haas Award-winning actor who has taught at both CCP and BMC and plays the part of Jason, was equally invigorated by the collaboration.
“I think the students recognized that they have had very different college experiences to this point,” says Davis, “and so the process was a lot about them learning that their lives may be very different and also not that different and being able to appreciate both realizations.”
Eli notes that at CCP, the Media/Medea project has spurred collaboration not just with Bryn Mawr,
but also among different disciplines at the college. “In this way, our theater students are engaged in a complete academic experience, one that equips them to pursue a career in the arts by emphasizing the value of critical analysis, interpersonal communication, and professional development.”
The project has revived and strengthened the connections between Bryn Mawr and CCP at a time when both, following the restrictions imposed by COVID, were at “exceptionally challenging moments,” says Conybeare.
“To collaborate together so fully on a project that is centered on a Black family and that is so richly creative in its use of an ancient Greek story is exhilarating,” she says, “and it has proven profoundly beneficial to both institutions.”