BROOKLYN – The Brooklyn Book Festival took place on September 17 drawing bibliophiles from all five boroughs and the New York tri-state area. This year’s festival included a reading of a scene from the ancient tragedy Ajax by Sophocles who was himself a general as Bryan Doerries noted in his introduction to the presentation in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall Courtroom. The Brooklyn-based writer, director, and translator, currently serves as Artistic Director of Theater of War Productions which presents programs that address the enduring impact of war as well as broader community issues such as gun violence, mental health, addiction, prison reform, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
As noted on their website, “Theater of War presents readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to military and civilian communities across the United States and Europe. These ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the visible and invisible wounds of war. By presenting these plays to military and civilian audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding available resources, and foster greater family, community, and troop resilience. Using Sophocles’ plays to forge a common vocabulary for openly discussing the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities, these events will be aimed at generating compassion and understanding between diverse audiences.”
The powerful presentation at the Brooklyn Book Festival was only a brief glimpse of the vital work being done through this extraordinary program to benefit the community and especially veterans. Actors Jumaane Williams as the Chorus, Zach Grenier as Ajax, and Amy Ryan as Tecmessa- Ajax’s wife, even in the brief reading demonstrated their skill and the raw emotions of the ancient play. The timelessness of Sophocles’ work moved the audience who participated in a Q&A session led by Doerries in which many noted how little has changed for veterans in the 2,500 years or so since the play was first performed in ancient Athens. In the discussion that followed, Doerries, who has been called “the Phil Donohue of ancient Greek tragedy,” pointed out that three tragedies followed by a satyr play were performed during the ancient drama festivals so that Sophocles’ Ajax was only one part of the four part argument with comedy always at the end.
Over 80,000 service members, veterans, and their families have attended and participated in Theater of War performances and discussions, Doerries noted. He mentioned the response of one veteran who noted that the Greek plays tell the truth about war and the experience of veterans and their families. Actor Zach Grenier said of the constancy of human nature from ancient times to today, “We haven’t changed one bit, one iota, in 2,500 years.”
The New York City Department of Veterans’ Services and Department of Cultural Affairs named Doerries the City’s newest Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) at an event on March 1 at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch. The two-year residency, which brings theater-based projects to all five boroughs, marks the second collaboration between the two agencies as part of the expanded PAIR program, created to enhance the City’s services through creative practice. The project, made possible through a $1,365,000 grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), is the first city-wide public health program implemented by the Department of Veterans’ Services.
Doerries was selected to be the City’s latest PAIR based on the broad impact of his work as co-founder of Theater of War Productions. Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is a co-producer of the residency as part of its commitment to being a resource and advocate for civic engagement, education, artistic expression, and a safe haven for public discourse. The project will combine theater and public forums that engage both veterans and civilians in community-specific performances that foster health and healing through open discussion and exchange. Over the next two years, the free events will take place in more than 60 venues across New York, including public libraries, with each of the projects tailored to the needs of different communities.
More information on the Theater of War is available online at: theaterofwar.com.