Greek tragedy Philoctetes informs a discussion on homelessness in New York

Philoctetes was written more than 2,000 years ago by the ancient Greek playwrite Sophocles.

Philoctetes was written more than 2,000 years ago by the ancient Greek playwrite Sophocles. Illustration by Zach Williams/ NYN Media

It’s a story as old as history. There’s a warrior who spent a decade alone, abandoned by his friends and the community he knew.

The Greek tragedy Philoctetes was written 2,400 years ago, but the Sophocles’ tragedy continues to frame discussions of social isolation, including a reading organized in early March by the New York City nonprofit Services for the UnderServed and Theater of War, a theater company that mixes classic drama with discussions on social issues such as homelessness.

The key is to link the personal trauma of an ancient archer with the experiences of thousands of people at a time of record homelessness in modern-day Gotham. It’s all part of a strategy to draw attention to the larger human issues involved with the nonprofit’s work, Donna Colonna, CEO at Services for the UnderServed, said in an interview.

“We look to have conversations about how we can make New York a better place for all New Yorkers,” she added. 

The nonprofit is one of the largest social service and housing organizations in the city, with more than 2,000 employees. Homelessness is among the top issues addressed by the 40-year-old organization, which has a wide portfolio of services for people with mental illness, disabilities, HIV/AIDS and other conditions.

This latest collaboration with Theater of War aimed to give a fresh perspective to the more than 100 staff and clients who attended the March 5 reading at The Pershing Square Signature Center in midtown Manhattan. Theater of War co-founder Bryan Doerries performed the reading alongside actors Amy Ryan, Zach Grennier, and Chinasa Ogbuagu.

They tell the story of Philoctetes, a famous Greek warrior known for his archery whose life fell apart during the Trojan War. The reading focused on three scenes that detail how the gung-ho warrior was abandoned by his wartime comrades after a snake bite transforms Philoctetes into an invalid.

He spends 10 years alone on an island called Lemnos. And for participants in the panel discussion that followed, as well as the social workers and clients in the audience, a decade on this Aegean island could just as easily have been years of drug addiction, homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and or any other mental ailment that drives a wedge between a person and the people and communities upon which they once depended.

One employee of SUS noted in the discussion how modern day social workers face similar issues to those experienced by these Greek soldiers from a civilization long gone. They are both on the front lines in events that are sometimes beyond their control – except in how it relates to the people in front of them, according to the employee whose name was not available.

“I think what the writer was trying to portray with the play was power – how someone who has authority can give directives to those that are executing that and us who are direct care workers in the field, we get the policies and we have to implement,” she said.