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Antíkoni and the Dance of Death

In her short play “Antíkoni,” Beth Piatote forces us to pause and reconsider. It is a stunning memento mori, and yet she takes this knowledge of mortality one step further. We are (mostly) comfortable with not knowing when or where we die, but Piatote urges us to think about the greater how and why. She presents a holistic death – a death that impacts the gone and the living. It is death where rituals matter, make meaning, and have lives of their own. She takes Antigone’s clash between the divine and the temporal and places it squarely in “America.”

“America” has its own unique Dance of Death. It looks like a comfort with violence and negligence to the point of destruction. When I think of “America,” I think of blood and dreams. It is an idea facilitated by stolen land and stolen people. The dirt of it is amalgamated by blood and fiction. I often wonder if continuous, ritual blood sacrifice is required to hold it together. “Bereavement” comes from the Old English word rēafian, which means “to rob.” Bereavement is a state of deprivation. Daily, we are bombarded by statistics, lives stolen and deprived of a worthy ending. They had ceased to have meaning. We had settled into being fated for destruction. We now face a crisis that forces us to pause, an effect Beth Piatote was able to produce with only her words.

“We were born into this suffering. That our own blood would be divided/From us, that our mourning could never come to an end, for it can never/Properly begin. Have you heard/ The latest decree, that all are forbidden from this place? /Not drum or song or sweetgrass smoke, no prayer may be given/Our ancestors here. [1]

I paused and was troubled. Lifetimes of dreams exist in children. Before they are beings, they are ideas. Children grow, and, if they’re lucky, have and attain their own dreams. Antíkoni is doomed before she begins, and she is keenly aware of it. It makes her perception of death much more intimate. Antíkoni’s unique intimacy with her ancestors feels like a sentient being of its own, and rituals nurture this creature. The “drum,” “song,” and “sweetgrass smoke” Piatote mention evoke multisensory images. You hear and feel drums and song, you smell, feel, and see sweetgrass smoke. She presents these images to Ismene while discussing how to honor the fallen brothers, their ancestors.

In their un-resting place in the museum, the brothers have their personhood reduced to artifact. Kreon and his museum “possess” Ataoklas’ body in death in a way that deprives him of rest. Of the various forms of captivity “America” has placed indigenous people in, this form is strikingly cruel. It is final in its fathomless disrespect. The warshirt and club of Ataoklas are meant to be displayed like specimens as “his selfsame body/disarticulates beneath the floor.”[2] The choice of the word “disarticulates” is particularly eloquent. Disarticulation carries dual meaning, it is both the literal process of bones separating at the joints and the disruption of an opinion, argument, train of logic, etc. The image Piatote evokes is that of a lonely eternity, of trapped moldering away. Yet the bones speak to Antíkoni; she feels they are calling for her to right the wrong that has been done to them. Antíkoni feels that to do nothing is another act of violence. Her desire is to return the remains to the earth with all of the attendant ritual that guides the dead and living. Antíkoni places the divine necessity of ceremonial return above the temporal structures she is subject to. The divine endures while the temporal passes away.

In life, the brothers were divided by differing authorities in a quasi-mirror of Antíkoni and Ismene. Both Antíkoni and Ismene are desperate to break the cycle; however, they see the path to do so disparately. “I beg you to be one heart with me. And of the/same hand,” Antíkoni pleads.[3] It is clear that though they are closely bonded, Ismene sees survival as the way forward in contrast to Antíkoni’s proposed glorious death in service of the divine. The choice of “heart” rather than “mind” is an intriguing one. When we disagree with our family members, we are usually not separated at the heart but the mind and the figurative hand. We would think and act differently than the other person. It is perhaps an indication of just how deeply Antíkoni feels this calling, how desperate she is to have her sister’s support, and how much she perceives the lack thereof as a betrayal. In Antíkoni’s view, Ismene’s survivalist path is not enough to satisfy the spiritual debt incurred. As an aside, this is the first of (by my count) sixteen mentions of the word “heart” in “Antíkoni,” the last of which is Ismene’s final lament.[4] We see and feel the brothers’ trauma resonate through time, implicating and enveloping Antíkoni and her living family members till the end.

Like Antíkoni, my personhood complicates how I think of death in all its forms. She feels trapped by her ancestors’ legacy in a way that I’ve been able to make much more transitory. I exist, intermittently, in a state of suspended grief. I am not the first Black woman to do so, which grants a curious kind of comfort. I’m rarely surprised by loss, rarely fazed for too long. I am able to think of death as transformation. I am able to think of loss as just another part of life. Reading this work in the midst of COVID-19 and all its ravages, I feel Antíkoni’s sense of spiritual debt much more keenly. She has been bereaved, as have I. She has been bereaved before she even existed, as have I. When I peel away my anger at this sense of loss, I sometimes feel sadness at being robbed. I have been robbed of family, friends, and artists thus far in this particular crisis. I am used to grief as a protracted process, punctuated by ritual and points of connection. This process has been disrupted.

As a Black woman living in the United States, I have been expected since childhood to get acquainted with the prospect of death. Black people die every day through varied forms of violence via institutions, negligence, the state, poverty, interpersonal violence… the list continues. I am a Black woman steeped in Jewish spirituality, tradition, and history, which also emphasize a comfort with death. You can, at any moment, be hunted, pursued, killed. There is also acknowledgement of the close relationships between sorrow and beauty, death and life. It is woven into our songs, stories, and scripture. In Jewish tradition, when condolences are expressed, they are expressed primarily as “May their memory be a blessing.” The dead live on as they are nourished by the living, and in this way, Antíkoni and Ismene are both right.

I have personally been coached into survival, with the intention that the sacrifices of our ancestors enable me to live a fuller life. I still participate in our various rituals with the knowledge that they have evolved out of necessity over time. It is part of my role as survivor and one I cannot neglect. “There the brothers lay beside each other, in their homeland, blood and bone united once more, yet no one there to pray for them, no one there to drum and sing them to the Shadowland, no one to journey with them to the other side, no horses to join them there.”[5] The image is of the brothers as somehow together but lonely and profoundly bereaved in their own deaths. Here it is easy to see how Antíkoni was moved. Our rituals are spiritual work, which she recognizes deeply. She is unwilling to let every portion of the rituals fall away, even if it means forfeiting her personal survival. That is a high price she is willing to pay. Both Ismene and Antíkoni’s choices are powerful and should be recognized as such. People like Antíkoni preserve and honor our practices while people like Ismene ensure they survive.

Death is thought of as final when, in reality, it is ongoing. It reverberates. It is felt by those we touch throughout our lifetimes. It has to be felt, acknowledged, and worked through, then a living memory has to be produced. In my opinion, that is much of the work of our death rituals. The work Antíkoni does for the brothers is also done for herself. Limitations usually force evolution, and, no matter how hard Antíkoni attempts to reproduce the tradition, her personhood influences how the ritual proceeds. The loneliness of death by COVID and the cessation of normal death rituals have taken a toll. People are dying alone. They are dying alone in homes with no care. They are dying alone in hospitals with no loved ones. They are dying without last words. They are dying without memorials. This presents a challenge – for those who love those who are lost, what is ours to do? What can we do? This deliberation is ongoing.

We have always had our rituals. We are experiencing an overhauled version of our whirling, mid-air dance of death. There is a particularly dystopian element to freezer trucks carting bodies around the city. Bodies are being lifted by forklifts, not individuals. “I will bring out their bodies. I cannot carry the burdens alone.”[6] Antíkoni pleads again for her sister’s hands. I take inspiration from her. While we should not expose ourselves to harm as we perform rituals, they must be done. Along with my parents, I light a candle for every person I lose, confident that their spirits can see its glow. Bodies are not being prepared as there is high risk of transmission. Unhoused people have kin who may not ever know they have gone. “The bodies are ungoverned by us,” says Ismene in response to her sister’s plot.[7] This idea of belonging is complex. COVID-19 forces us to relinquish bodies but never souls. When we do our death rituals, they are to affirm a claim to their memory and commend the soul to something else. To do anything less is a betrayal. There is violence in doing nothing. Antíkoni’s act is as much a personal cause as it is a message to the collective. Antíkoni chooses differently, and there is a transcendent righteousness in her choice. She follows her own steps.

[1] Beth Piatote, The Beadworkers (Counterpoint Press, 2019), p. 143 [2] Ibid, p. 145 [3] Ibid, p. 146 [4] Ibid, p. 201 [5] Ibid, p. 143 [6] Ibid, p. 146 [7] ibid

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