Media/Medea: Staging a Modern Greek Tragedy
Rehearsals are now well underway for Media/Medea, an updated adaptation of Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea, re-envisioned for the 21st-century from a Black perspective.
For the 15 student actors, this is not only a chance to perform in the premiere of a play by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright James Ijames—of Fat Ham fame—it’s also an opportunity to interact with peers from a different educational setting. Half of the students in the production are from Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges and half are from Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).
The staging of the play, set to open in mid-April, is part of Greek Drama/Black Lives, a larger yearlong collaboration between the two institutions, sponsored by the Theater and Classics Departments at Bryn Mawr. As Classics Professor Catherine Conybeare, who is principal investigator for the American Council of Learned Societies grant that is funding the project, explains, a key goal of Greek Drama/Black Lives is to strengthen the connections between CCP and Bryn Mawr and also to shine a light on what we can learn today from the classics, using theater as the field for discovery.
The play is being 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 as playwright. “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 includes a playwriting class, a partnership with middle schoolers at E.M. Stanton School in South Philadelphia, and a theoretical and experiential graduate seminar.
In transposing Medea to a modern setting, Ijames, an associate professor of theatre at Villanova University, looked to popular culture for inspiration, imagining how the implosion of a celebrity couple might affect their children, and in the process lifting up questions of race and familial conflict.
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.
The adaptation has resonated deeply with the student actors. “I was not surprised that it was brilliant and insightful and imaginative,” says Quinn Eli, curriculum coordinator for theater at CCP, who has known Ijames for more than decade. “And I wasn’t surprised that James was able to find strategies organic to the original text that will really resonate with contemporary audiences because those elements are there in Medea.”
Whether in ancient Greece or modern-day America, certain themes endure. “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 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 really 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.”
For Regan Riehl ’24, an English major minoring in theater, engaging with Media/Medea with the rest of the cast has been 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 plays Glauce, the princess for whom Jason abandons Medea. “Part of our work is going back to the original text and finding the parallels there, but a lot of it is looking at the work where it is and trying to reimagine these characters who we have some understanding of but who are existing in this new way.”
Internationally known director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who founded Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre Company, was excited to start rehearsals, which alternate between CCP’s Black Box Theater and BMC’s Goodhart Theater. “Every time a group of humans gets to work on a brand- new something, it’s magic,” she says, adding that what makes this especially magical is the collaboration between the two institutions.
“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, is equally invigorated by the collaboration. “I think the students recognize that they have had very different college experiences to this point, and so the process is a lot of them learning that their lives may be very different and also not that different and being able to appreciate both.”
Back in January, before rehearsals began, Slusar worked with the cast for two weeks teaching a series of acting techniques, giving everyone a similar set of tools and fostering an early sense of community. “The best art is made from collaboration. We do not create in a vacuum but through rigorous and intentional practice. We worked to lay a foundation of shared technique on which the play could be built,” Slusar says.
The actors were also able to sit down to a table read with Ijames (via Zoom, since he was in New York City preparing for the Broadway opening of Fat Ham). “To have the blessing of being in the room with him and being able to ask what he was thinking about in terms of a certain character was so cool,” says Bethany Wisdom ’24, who plays the part of Circe, Medea’s aunt. “James is very down-to-earth and he gave us a lot of encouragement and was just excited to see us run with it and create our own bird.”
With almost six weeks to go before opening night, Media/Medea is starting to take shape. “We're not just talking and thinking about it anymore,” says McLaughlin, who plays the role of the chorus leader. “We’re up and moving and making decisions and trying to figure out things. It's my favorite part of any process because you find out things about yourself that you never knew.”
On a recent night, CCP’s black box was filled with activity as the cast ran through their scenes—trying out different approaches, working out where they should be on stage, taking in Raelle’s notes to speak louder or bring more urgency to the dialogue.
The coming weeks will add polish and depth and resolve dramatic conundrums, but already, says Eli, “If you only evaluate this in terms of how it’s bringing students together in a creative enterprise, it’s already very successful.”
Watching the process, he says, you start to realize how integral dialogue and interaction are to basic human understanding. “Once you get two groups talking about something that they each care about, it’s amazing how they find the common ground and the consensus that’s missing in so many other parts of our lives. It’s a pleasure to watch.”
Media/Medea on Stage
James Ijames’ Media/Medea will be directed by internationally recognized director and founder of local Philadelphia company Azuka Theatre, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, and will feature Barrymore Award and Haas Award winning actor Akeem Davis working alongside student actors from Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Community College of Philadelphia.
Performances will take place:
April 13–16: Bryn Mawr College, Hepburn Teaching Theater
April 20–22: Black Box Theatre, Community College of Philadelphia