“The Odyssey has always been with me,” Emily Wilson writes in a note at the beginning of her new translation of the epic Greek adventure — the first into English by a woman —
explaining how her elementary school put on a children’s production when she was 8, which inspired her to eventually learn Greek and Latin and study at Oxford.
On that scale, I’m late to the party, having only discovered the book in my mid-30s, when Robert Fagles published his masterful translation.
Like many classics, The Odyssey is not only a thrilling adventure story, but a lens that can be used to view contemporary life.
All the confusion over gun control, for instance, is clarified by a single, utterly true sentence at the beginning of Book XIX, “Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin.” (“Iron” refers to swords; the sentence is commonly translated: “The blade itself incites to deeds of violence,” though I can’t find where originally).
And just to show how flexible the classics truly are, that exact same passage can also be used to support gun advocates, since it occurs as Odysseus is hiding the suitors’ weapons so he can more easily kill them.
You’re allowed to use the classics however you please — that’s half the fun. They belong to everyone, and almost everyone has taken a crack at The Odyssey or its hero, Odysseus. Plato commented, Dante condemned (sticking Odysseus way down in the 8th circle, with the frauds, for “the ambush of the horse.”). The plot has inspired everything from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
So my interest was piqued when I heard the Chicago Children’s Choir has turned The Odyssey into a hip-hop adventure called “Long Way Home,” being performed this weekend.
How did that happen?
It started with the Q Brothers.
“We’re a theater collective in the city,” said JQ. “We’ve been writing hip-hop adaptations of classics for almost 20 years now.”
Mostly Shakespeare; Children’s Choir director Josephine Lee saw their “Othello: The Remix.”
“She said, ‘I’ve got to do this with my kids somehow, what can we do? We have to tell the most epic story ever,'” recalled JQ. “I said, ‘Well, the most epic story ever is The Odyssey. Let’s place it in Chicago and let’s set teenagers as the main characters, the heroes.”
Odysseus became “Ody” and female, performed by 17-year-old poet and aspiring filmmaker, Chloé Johnson, a senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.
“It’s cool to take on the role,” she said. “It’s fun learning how to rap over a beat while saying a line.”
Some concepts move with surprising ease from ancient Greece to contemporary Chicago. Odysseus’s crew becomes Ody’s, well, crew.
As with translator Emily Wilson, a student Odyssey has piqued Johnson’s interest in the original.
“The opportunity to be part of “Long Way Home” got me to research The Odyssey and learn about it,” Johnson said.
She has been in the choir of a decade, and gone with them to South Africa, Italy and Cuba.
“It’s been an amazing experience, to travel abroad,” she said. “This summer we are traveling to Israel.”
Johnson speaks with infectious enthusiasm, sometimes bursting into snatches of song.
“Next year I will be going to college,” she said. “I would like to go into film studies. I’m trying to be an influential woman in film, I am very excited. I am ready to take on the world, ready to leave home, see how I can work independently.”
I couldn’t help but think of the reputation burdening Chicago teens, and asked her about it.
“It is very frustrating,” Johnson said. “Chicago is painted as ‘Chi-Raq,’ people don’t realize, our youth, what we are capable of. Chicago is a very segregated city. Not everyone has opportunities, but children who are interested in going into music have that opportunity, to sing and express themselves. My favorite thing about Chicago is the Chicago arts community, Louder than a Bomb poetry, Chicago Children’s Choir, the Department of Cultural Affairs. That is what unites the city, its visual arts, its film, its poetry.”
“Long Way Home” has its world premiere at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave., on Friday. It runs through Sunday.