“For the purposes of the play please consider that Greece existed as Ebonia in Africa and was populated by warring Negro tribes,” reads the program notes from the first African-American adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic satire “Lysistrata.” Featuring an all-black cast, that Federal Theater Project production held a successful preview performance in Seattle on Sept. 17, 1936.
The next day, the Seattle City Council shut it down right before its official opening.
Fortunately, Spike Lee’s adaptation of “Lysistrata” in his newest film, “Chi-Raq,” has not met the same fate. Set for release on the big screen Dec. 4 by Amazon (which will post it online later), Mr. Lee’s movie represents the web retailer’s first theatrical feature. The film had provoked a different kind of backlash, because of the title (a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq popularized by the rapper Chief Keef). It also faced accusations that its use of satire and Aristophanes’ plot of a sex strike makes light of the gang violence plaguing Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods.
“It is not comedy, it is satire,” Mr. Lee told me at the Loews Regency Hotel near Central Park. “Aristophanes satirized Greece over 2,000 years ago. Satire has always been a way to deal with serious subject matter, and we wanted to honor the original source.”
Then again, “Lysistrata,” easily Aristophanes’ most performed play, has always spurred debate, and “Chi-Raq” could be seen as part of a historical tradition of African-American adaptations that have set off unanticipated controversies.
First staged in 411 B.C., it tells the story of Lysistrata’s effort to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to take over the treasury and withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers.
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