Lysistrata is a comic drama written by the Athenian dramatist Aristophanes. The ancient play was satire in rhythmic speech and song about a sex strike by women to force men to make peace. It was full of obscenities, hilarious antics and was also deadly serious about male violence. It was produced in 411 BC, soon after one of the most catastrophic defeats suffered by the Athenians in the course of the long Peloponnesian War.
On this occasion the city sent an especially massive force on a campaign to conquer Sicily. The forces left with great confidence, bravado and even passion. But only stories about how horribly they suffered returned to Athens. Shockingly, the entire force was lost. Modern historians estimate that at least 25% of the male citizen population of Athens perished in that one Campaign. That means that every single member of the audience at the first performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was grieving. This was an emergency.
A new film by the provocative artist Spike Lee adapts Aristophanes’ comic masterpiece to address a 21st century emergency — the devastating effects of persistent gun violence in urban communities.
Lee collaborated with writer, filmmaker and University of Kansas professor Kevin Willmott who years ago wrote a screenplay adapting Lysistrata as a hip-hop musical comedy (his original title was “Gotta Give it Up”). Lee set the story in Chicago and filming took place in the Englewood neighborhood in summer 2015. The film premiered November 24, 2015.
Chi-Raq is both remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original play and fiercely in the moment today.
On March 2, 2016 Northwestern University hosted “An Evening with Spike Lee” which included a film screening of Chiraq and a Q & A with the filmmaker. The brilliant English classicist Edith Hall was there and writes about the parallels between the ancient play and the contemporary emergency on her blog.
A controversy erupted in June 2015 when a casting call for extras identified the title of the film as Chiraq (pronounced Shy-RACK) a nickname for Chicago coined in 2009 by local rapper King Louie. The nickname painfully and pointedly compares the gun violence endured in high-crime south side communities to the horrors encountered by U.S. troops and civilians alike in war zones in Iraq. The mayor, among others, worried that Lee’s film could unfairly define Chicago in the public’s mind. Others worried that embracing a nickname that highlights murderous violence could be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Others claimed he was an interloper. Others praised the effort to raise awareness of city’s problem with gun violence. Lee expressed confidence in the audience’s capacity to understand the viewpoint of the film. The controversy persists.
Columnist Mary Schmich of The Chicago Tribune reflects on Spike Lee’s intererst in satire.
To view an animated 2-minute version of the plot of Lysistrata (written by Oxford classicist Oliver Taplin and prodced by The Open University, London) click here.
The ancient play Lysistrata presents a singular depiction of nonviolent protest against the unrelenting acts of violence. It has a long history of being loosely adapted by activists. For example, on March 3, 2003 The Lysistrata Project orchestrated thousands of simultaneous readings of the play all around the world as an act of protest against the U.S. action against Iraq in the wake of the attacks September 11, 2001. Also in 2003, the Women of the Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized protests that included, literally, a sex strike as part of extensive efforts to bring down the abusive rule of President Charles Taylor. In 2012 female civil society activists from the organization Let’s Save Togo developed a “Lysistratic” form of protest.
An account of productions of Lysistrata in the U.S. 1930-2012 can be found in Emily Klein’s 2014 book, Sex and War on the American Stage. Information about Chicago productions can be accessed by consulting the The Bosher Collection, the database maintained by the Classicizing Chicago project.