When writer/director Seonjae Kim originally conceived an off-off broadway play and rock concert based on the Sophocles greek tragedy Antigone, it was always the plan to make the titular character and her greek chorus into a riot grrrl band. But Kim never could have predicted how popular and in-demand the production would become within New York’s underground rock scene.
Since premiering at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 2017, Riot Antigone has sold out 120-person theatres and houses six times, with several additional shows being added to accommodate demand. One of the production’s most popular musical numbers “Girl Riot,” was recently featured in a Marc Jacobs campaign.
The story of Antigone is a classic case of a maligned woman in a greek tragedy, in the same vein as Medea, Ariadne, and Clytemnestra. Antigone was the daughter of Oedipous, and she also served as her father’s guide into exile. Later she was sentenced to a public execution after she illegally buried her brother Polyneices.
The original Greek tale by Sophocles focuses less on Antigone and more on the glorification of the story’s male “hero,” Creon, the man who orders to have Antigone executed. The fact that such a fascinating character was so easily glossed over has always unsettled Kim, and ultimately became the catalyst for the birth of Riot Antigone.
Riot Antigone will be released as an album on April 8, 2022. The soundtrack consists of theatrical, headbanging thrashers with the distortion turned up to 11, punkifying Antigone and her greek chorus with a modern anarcho-feminist spirit. Each song poignantly tackles abuse, the inherent exploitation of female socialization, heartbreak, and vigilante justice, with vocal nods to riot grrrl and queercore pioneers like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Tribe 8.
The most chilling cut on the record is the spoken-word monologue “Free She,” in which Antigone unleashes the full extent of her wrath against all of the failed attempts to silence her. “You think I’m a scapegoat/You think I’m the cautionary tale/You think I’m the tragic heroine/But I am the writer,” she bellows defiantly, plowing through the rumbling militaristic percussion. As the ensemble erupts in cheers near the end, she continues: “This stage is my battlefield and my words are my bombs/If you try to take them from me, they’ll just blow you away.”
I spoke to Riot Antigone’s writer and director Seonjae Kim about the genesis of the play, her favorite bands of all time, her experience co-directing sessions for the album, and the long-awaited return to the stage for the full cast and crew.
How have the past five years of putting on this production evolved for you?
After the first show we put on in 2017, all of us–the cast and crew–were really hungry for more of the community we had built around this production, so we put on more shows and started raising the money to make the album. The beginning of COVID was also the beginning of the recording process for us, so we had to take a collective hibernation as we figured out the next phases of our lives.
Once we resumed the recording process it felt really great to return to something celebratory. This is a story about power and finding your voice.
As a former theater kid and a dedicated punk, I felt incredibly validated by this production. When was your first riot grrrl awakening?
Probably high school. I was a bit of a social floater that didn’t belong to one group and I was incredibly angry. I was very anti-popular culture at the time—I’m not anymore, now I unashamedly love people like Taylor Swift and Ariana—but high school was around the time I discovered riot grrrl. I was born in ‘91 and in the early-2000s riot grrrl was way past its heyday, but I really connected to the anger and the raw emotional vulnerability of that era. I really wanted to express that mentality through music and poetry. So even though I wasn’t necessarily a musician, I really connected to that sensibility. I really gravitated to the DIY ethos where you don’t have to be an expert in a certain field in order to love doing it.
What were some of the first bands you gravitated to?
Well I have to say Bikini Kill, cause there wouldn’t be a movement without them. I really love Hole as well—some people might get upset with me for categorizing them as riot grrrl but they are to me, and I’ve always preferred their earlier stuff to Nirvana. Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and X-Ray Spex were hugely important to me as well.
I saw Midori Francis (Ocean’s 8, The Sex Lives of College Girls) perform a chilling rendition of your “Free She” monologue at an event with the Lesbian Mazer Archives. How did that come about?
That was actually organized by Gina Young, who put together the event. We connected over social media and they were looking for riot grrrl artists and creators to feature. And obviously I said yes, because Midori’s one of my favorite actors and it was such an honor to have her perform a piece that I had written. I sadly wasn’t able to make it to that event due to an emergency, so I’m incredibly grateful that it’s been documented online.
Out of curiosity, do you even remember writing that? This might just be the writer in me talking, but I feel like I can often tell when something is composed in such a whirlwind of passion.
You know it’s interesting, because we had two premiere productions and that monologue was one very conscious change I made between those two shows. I realized that Antigone needed a moment after claiming her voice in “Girl Riot” where she actually uses it, so I decided to write a spoken word piece. So it was planned, but you’re partially right; I cannot for the life of me remember what was actually going through my head while I was writing that.
You mentioned that Antigone was a character who you deeply resonated with in high school, and that you felt disappointed with the focus of the tragedy being on the male hero. When did Antigone start to pop up in your life again?
Around when I was just starting to find my own voice as a director. I was a theater major in college and I was performing in a lot of Greek tragedies. At one point I was cast as Antigone, so before performances I would play “Rebel Girl” to get into the spirit. I was always really into the Greek classics and punk, so I decided I would combine the two. It was an evolution from being the seed of an idea to writing an original script and eventually approaching musicians to collaborate with on an original soundtrack.
I had always written, but writing a play was pretty daunting at the time. I’ve sort of expanded to writing in television and it’s a muscle I’m still training, but it’s something that I’m really proud of.
One of the standout tracks for me was “Actor for Hire.” What was the original concept behind that song?
That song stemmed from the pressure to play a role that society expects us to play as women. It felt very apt for a story about Antigone. I was very inspired by early Sleater-Kinney records when writing it. I liked that the metaphor was very on the nose because it really cuts to the core of how degrading the “traditional” role for women as mandated by society is. And being an actor in the industry is no less dehumanizing as it was hundreds of years ago, so I really wanted to push that metaphor as far as it could go and also give the performer a fun tongue-in-cheek range of energy to tap into.
What I thought was really cool on many of the vocal parts were all the subtle nods to riot grrrl classics like Tribe 8 and Sleater-Kinney. It feels like all your performers really embodied the spirit of the greats.
That’s really nice to hear. We definitely had a deep understanding of the larger diaspora of riot grrrl, and I love that you got those two references. They definitely weren’t conscious references, but they were definitely embedded in the shared vocabulary and the language of the ensemble.
I appreciated how Mori said she treated her “lack of experience” in producing as an advantage. Would you say that sense of DIY freedom has also served as an advantage for you?
Definitely. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my three decades on this earth, it’s that you just have to do things through trial and error. Trying and failing is way better than waiting until something feels right. I’ve never, ever regretted going after an opportunity. It’s always the stuff that I never tried or was too afraid to go after that I ended up regretting. Some fear definitely held me back for a long time, but the ethos of riot grrrl continues to inspire me to embrace the rookie spirit, because trying something new is always going to be scary.
What was it like to be present at these studio sessions and witness the process in real time?
That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to be at the helm of producing a rock album. Mori was leading a lot of these sessions behind the soundboard, and collaborating with her was incredibly easy-going and a lot of it was done in her bedroom. The drums were recorded at a studio but a lot of the vocals were tracked in Mori’s house, which was incredibly fun and very DIY. We had the time of our lives.
Riot Antigone will be released as an album on April 8, 2022.
An upcoming live performance of Riot Antigone is scheduled to take place on April 14 at Elsewhere Zone 1 in Brooklyn, NY.