This semester’s UTNT (UT New Theatre) features two stellar new plays that revitalize classic Greek tragedies, adapting ancient stories into the modern world. M.F.A. in Playwriting candidate Jenny Krick has reimagined Euripides’ The Trojan Women through the mind of a contemporary female playwright, exploring themes of trauma and mental health, while M.F.A. candidate Nicholas Kaidoo transported Aeschylus’ The Oresteia into modern housing projects in New York City, bringing with it themes of justice, power and inheritance. Leading up to their virtual premieres, Kaidoo and Krick shared their process of adapting these centuries-old scripts into new plays, from their initial fascinations with the tragedies starting in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ classroom to growing their own unique worlds from the foundations the classic works of literature provide.
How did you use the skeleton of The Trojan Women (Jenny) or The Oresteia (Nicholas) to create a new and modern piece of theatre? What about this classical story inspired you to create a modern rendition or response to the piece?
Jenny (sad women being sad): I took a Greek plays adaptation class in fall 2020 where I was incredibly drawn to The Trojan Women. It was the one play that featured primarily female characters, which I’m all about. More specifically, the play provided space for each woman to tell her story, which feels rare for a play of that time. These women were really screwed over by the patriarchal society they lived under, and I thought: relatable!
I wanted to write a version that felt modern – one that spoke on these same themes of toxic masculinity and patriarchal oppression. But I knew I wanted to make it funny. I couldn’t take another play about how awful it is to be a sad woman (speaking as a sad woman herself). I wanted jokes and humor and laughs. I needed jokes and humor and laughs to show what it is to live and exist in this world. At the risk of sounding dramatic, we need the jokes and humor and laughs to survive.
Nicholas (Fall the House): When I read The Oresteia trilogy, it felt like Aeschylus had built a world that could honor both the fantastic and the lived-in – he balanced the world’s capacity for grandeur with the groundedness of his characters’ very real, day-to-day lived lives. And in so doing, he could make this story that we’ve inherited as being about the birth of judicial justice. Aeschylus’s justice, though, doesn’t mirror our own, so I wanted to imagine a version of the story that feels just a little bit closer to our idea of justice.
Also, “Clytemnestra” is the baddest character in all of Greek drama, and I wanted to live with her a little bit and see what came of it. I think the play Agamemnon does okay by her, but I wondered if there was a version of the trilogy that honors her and the integrity of her presence in the whole Oresteia world, not just the first play.
There are also thematic echoes around power and violence that felt pertinent – they translate really cleanly into other communities where violence is present. I wanted to appropriate the nobility and cultural import they’re read with in Greek drama and carry those same ideas of nobility, fluency and cultural import onto people that aren’t usually allowed that kind of attention.
What important themes or aspects did you hold onto from the original story? What did you let go of or adjust from the original storyline in order to fit your own narrative?
Nicholas (Fall the House): What I most appreciated about the original story was how you could trace intergenerationality and inheritances of violence—that the biggest problems that affect any particular culture or community aren’t confinable to individuals and their respective actions. Instead, the circumstances of those individuals are attributable to larger systems that they might be a part of but have very little agency over.
The most overt rewrite was a rewrite by addition: there are two characters (“Ollie” and “Kara”) for which there are no analogs in the original text. My impulse was to represent that inheritance of violence isn’t quite so unidirectional downward by bloodline. It’s more communicable than that – it propagates itself not just from parent to child but from neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend as well. Just by virtue of proximity, no one in the world could be untouched by it; want to as they might.
Jenny (sad women being sad): The show centers on “J,” a writer, who is trying to write her own adaptation of The Trojan Women. She tells this story with her characters “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” These characters are versions of characters from The Trojan Women—”Hecuba,” “Cassandra,” “Andromache” and “Helen.” They’re also versions of “J” – voices she is speaking to and through to sort out all the “weird, terrifying shit in her brain.” Once I knew I was writing proxy characters and discussing the themes within the original, I let go of the rest of the play.
There isn’t a great deal of traditional plot in the original and the same goes for sad women being sad. The lack of plot was simultaneously freeing and difficult. It gave me room to highlight current news stories as anchors for my version; things we keep coming back to again and again in the play. In my version, I also adjusted the relationships these women have to each other, to allow for more tenderness and care in how they treat each other. In the original, “Helen” is blamed for the women’s circumstances and as such, is vilified. In sad women being sad, there is no blaming or vilifying. Everyone is on an even playing field. The conflict comes from the women trying to understand each other, while also trying to make sense of the world around them.
Jenny, what is the significance of telling this story, based on a classic Greek tragedy, with an all-female cast?
Jenny (sad women being sad): I think any writer can tell you, perhaps with different words and phrases, that we are always looking for a way into the story. Well, at least I am. I ask myself, “Why am I writing this and who is it for?” I’m not saying I have an answer (I don’t), but I do begin with those questions. In one way or another, my plays are often about me, Jenny, asking what it means to be a woman in this society I’ve been born into and, therefore, contributed to. Because I am trying to figure this out personally, so are the women in my plays. I chose to adapt The Trojan Women because these characters were grappling with the same issues. As such, my plays have very few (sometimes zero!) men in them. This holds true for sad women being sad.
With this play, I spent a lot of time with the idea of art versus the artist. Gender always comes into play with this argument because of the way our society has been constructed. I’m sure you can name five men off the top of your head who have made headlines just this year with this debate of their art overshadowing the person, or vice-versa. As a female-identifying artist, I’m trying to not only figure out my place in this world, but also asking, “What will I leave behind once I am gone from it? Is my art a reflection of me? Can we separate the art from the artist? Should we?” For this story, I think it’s important to ask this question with female voices, as so often our art is pushed aside (or never created) because of the value we place on male artists and their work.
Nicholas, what is the significance of telling this story, based on a classic Greek tragedy, with an all-Black cast?
Nicholas (Fall the House): The shorthand answer is that as a play that’s inspired by where I grew up, I wanted it to look like where I grew up at the time I grew up there.
A longer answer would be that in the theatre, work about non-white persons or communities will frequently end up orbiting whiteness or, rather, whiteness becomes the domineering catalyst or… thing… exerting force on the world such that the play is robbed of itself. Instead of being a play about X non-white community, it becomes a play that is actually about the very thing it alleges to problematize. It ends up upholding the integrity of the very gaze that it sought to deconstruct.
I wanted to world-build and populate that world with all Black people – in homage to my family and the community I grew up in. I wanted their camaraderie, their rapports, their loves, their vengeances all to be unmediated by whiteness. At least explicitly. There’s no Martin Freeman in Black Panther here – if you’re going to identify with anyone, you have to sit with and identify with the Black characters that exist in the world. And in so doing, hopefully, you recognize that the problems being explored are indeed as universal as our canonized reverence for Greek drama would suggest. Even when – like in Fall the House – the setting is an oft-ignored urban housing project.
How do you feel that this adaptation comments on today’s world while simultaneously responding to the original work?
Nicholas (Fall the House): The world is both so different from when Aeschylus wrote his play and so not different.
The world is maybe slightly more hospitable for “Clytemnestra” — or “Nessa” in Fall the House — now, but it’s still fundamentally, unconscionably skewed against her.
That’s the through-line. It’s unfortunate and I wish it wasn’t true, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. I love “Clytemnestra” and I just want to see the world be kind to her one day.
Jenny (sad women being sad): In adapting The Trojan Women into sad women being sad, there was always a constant discussion of how much of the original to keep and what to let go of. I didn’t want to write a play where you have to know the original to understand my adaptation. What I wanted to do was draw a line from the original play to my play. A lineage, if you will. Mental health and inheritance is talked about often in sad women – this passing down of sadness. In this way, sad women being sad is responding to the original work and everything that has come since then, including our current climate.
We (my co-director, Andrea L. Hart and I) often talk about this play’s shape being a spiral, with all the character’s exchanges and stories circling and circling – getting tighter and tighter – until we reach this pinnacle of everything discussed (mental health, sexual violence, trauma, etc.). It is at this pinnacle where the spiral makes sense, and (hopefully!) we see the connections of the past to the present. As far as the future goes, the play gives that question over to the audience. We now give you all this information; it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.