When Breyasia Scott, C’20, came to Penn, her love of theater came with her. She’d gone to the Academy for Performing Arts in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and knew she wanted to continue nurturing her artistic passion by minoring in theater. An interest in science led her to consider a physics major, but she quickly changed her mind. “I thought, 'Okay, physics is not in the cards,'” Scott remembers. “So, what am I going to do?” A decision to take Intro to Ancient Greece to fulfill a requirement gave her an answer and led to an award-winning thesis.
“I fell in love with mythology and decided to really go for it and declare an ancient history major,” she explains. But Scott wasn’t done exploring. After taking American Sign Language (ASL) to fulfill another requirement, she added that as a minor. When she studied abroad at University College London, she realized she wanted to learn about more recent history, so she went ahead and added a history minor to her studies.
Scott’s interests are wide-ranging, and her experiences are, too. While studying abroad in London, she took a class on American history to see how another nation taught a subject she’d been learning all her life. “I thought it would be easy for me, but some of my British classmates knew things about American history that I didn’t. I learned about things I’d never known before,” she says.
Her ASL minor required her to take linguistics courses, which led her to lab-based research. “I wanted to see how I fit in with research, to see if it was for me,” she explains. Scott did an internship at the Child Language and Learning Lab, where she learned to code and worked with children to see how they develop grammar.
That summer, she observed how ASL and English skills develop similarly in children, and decided that she wouldn’t be adding lab research to her list of passions. It was an important lesson, she says.
With the linguistics research behind her, Scott turned her attention to her senior thesis, a project that allowed her to combine her love for ancient history and theater. The first semester of her senior year, she wrote a play under the supervision of her advisor, Emily Wilson. Wilson, College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor in the Humanities, received wide acclaim for her 2017 translation of Homer’s Odyssey.
“I could not believe it!” says Scott of working with Wilson. “I was star-struck. She was Beyoncé to me.”
Scott’s play, Medea’s Symposium, draws on her experiences as a woman of color studying Ancient History at Penn, Euripides’ 431 BCE play, Medea, and Plato’s Dialogues. “It’s both creative and critical,” Scott explains. “I explore issues of exclusivity in the classics and reframe Medea’s story to consider the experience of the ‘other,’ giving voice to the otherwise silent: women, slaves, and Medea herself.”
For her work, Scott won the Rose Award, which honors outstanding student research in the College.
In the spring semester, Scott planned to put on a performance of the play with guidance from Rosemary Malague, Senior Lecturer and Program Director of Theatre Arts. She cast actors, booked performance space at Penn Museum, and began directing rehearsals. The COVID-19 pandemic changed her plans.
“It was a very hard thing for me to realize that I couldn’t put on the performance,” Scott says. “I wanted so badly for an audience to see my work.”
Scott wasn’t able to direct a full performance, but she got a chance to see an audience reaction when, at the Classics Department senior colloquium, Scott’s classmates read a scene for the rest of the group.
“It was the closest I got to having an audience,” she says. “It was nice to see people picking up on jokes in the script and understanding everything I worked on.”
Below, read excerpts from Medea’s Symposium.
Excerpt from Scene I
NARRATOR: The year is unclear, but I suppose everything in the Underworld is. (pointing to the stage) As you can see, preparations for the symposium have begun. Sappho was the first to arrive.
SAPPHO enters the room confidently. She is smiling.
SAPPHO: (commanding) Slave! Pour me a drink while I sing this beautiful song about love!
SLAVE pours SAPPHO a drink.
NARRATOR: She began to sing. She created music that was so alluring, everyone immediately stopped what they were doing to listen.
Some say an army of horsemen, others
Say foot soldiers, still others say a fleet
Is the finest thing on the dark earth.
I say it is whatever one loves.
SAPPHO finishes and bows. SLAVE hands her her drink.
NARRATOR: (to audience) Well that was absolutely incredible! Do you want to hear more? (waits for audience response)
SAPPHO: Did I hear someone say encore?? Well if you insist! (takes a sip of her drink then begins to sing)
I would rather see her lovely step
And the radiant sparkle of her face
Than all the war chariots in Lydia
And soldiers battling in arms.
SAPPHO finishes. Everyone claps then resumes their work. She sits down on the couch.
NARRATOR: Wow! I see why Plato called her the “Tenth Muse.” I wonder how she’ll get along with our next two guests. (turns to the right) Oh look! Here comes Socrates now!
SOCRATES enters opposite the NARRATOR. He looks deep in thought.
NARRATOR: (in awe) Wow would you look at him! The smartest man to come out of Athens! A magnificent philosopher! So pensive! I wonder what cosmic truth he’s uncovering now...
SOCRATES begins to pick his nose and observe his mucus in great detail.
SOCRATES: (muttering) How fascinating...
SLAVE peers out and sees SOCRATES standing outside.
SLAVE: (to SAPPHO) Sappho, ma’am, I see Socrates standing outside on the porch. Should I run out to go get him?
SAPPHO: No you fool! He is wiser than you could ever be. Socrates must be left alone: he will come of his own accord when he has finished thinking. Now pour me a drink.
SLAVE goes to prepare the drink. At the same time SOCRATES lets out a huge fart and coughs from the awful stench.
SOCRATES: (muttering) How fascinating...
NARRATOR: (still in awe) I mean can you believe they killed this guy??
SAPPHO:(sarcastically) I’m so sorry to intrude on this male space with my “bloody” and “hysterical” female body. (turns to SLAVE who is busy cleaning) You! Slave! Tell me, what do you think of Medea?
HECTOR and SOCRATES gasp. SLAVE looks up at SAPPHO shocked, he begins to move his lips, but then stops, terrified of the punishment he might receive.
SAPPHO: Go on, I will protect you from their wrath.
SAPPHO points to the empty cup on the table. SLAVE pours himself a drink.
SLAVE: No one has ever asked me my opinion before. (Beat) I think Medea is… misunderstood. In my home country of Thrace, I was on my way to becoming a king. I was a brave warrior, but the fates were not on my side. Did I get immortalized in history even though I lost? (snarkily looks at HECTOR) No. Instead, I got carted off to a new land, with no one practicing my customs or beliefs. I had two options: fight or assimilate. For my survival, I chose the latter. In my country I was the slave owner, not the slave. But now being on the other side of the whip, I understand. You devalue our importance, yet your entire society relies on our labor. I’ve listened to stories of Homer where the great heroes Achilles and Agammenon lose themselves over a slave woman. Can you believe it? A woman? You know who my favorite character in the Odyssey was? No, not Odysseus, he was a selfish, egotistical, fool. That man’s hubris caused the death of his entire crew. What kind of king does that? Now you might assume my favorite character was Eumaeus right? But wrong again! He was a bright, loyal, man with a promising upbringing until the gods put him in the position of slavery and—
SOCRATES: (interrupting) But Eumaeus is clearly happy! Odysseus rewards him for his loyalty. He likes being a slave.
SLAVE: (angrily) No way! There is no man on this earth that likes being enslaved. (relaxes) So who is my favorite character?
HECTOR interrupts SLAVE.
HECTOR: So you mean to tell me slaves don’t like being slaves? (chuckles) I’ve never seen them complain.
SLAVE: (coughing) Spartacus! Ehem, excuse me.
SLAVE stops to take a drink. He continues.
SLAVE: You people belittle any culture that isn’t your own. Why does Medea commit the barbaric deed of killing her children? (sarcastically) Well she is from the barbaric land of Colchis of course! Everything is wrong and backwards there. Let me ask you this: what is the difference between Medea killing her children and Agamemnon killing his? What is the difference between Medea getting rid of her kids and Athenians discarding unwanted infants? There isn’t. All people deserve honor, Athenian or not. And I think Medea is included in that.
SLAVE drinks. There is silence. NARRATOR begins to applaud. SOCRATES and HECTOR begin to boo. SLAVE looks defeated.
SAPPHO: Well that was... (SLAVE looks up hopefully) the biggest pile of shit I have ever heard in my entire life. I’m sorry Socrates, you were right. I should have never even given him a chance to speak! (takes cup from SLAVE) Now get back to work you fool!
SLAVE sighs. He starts cleaning again.
SOCRATES: Now, I see we saved the best for last. I don’t have a speech prepared so this is just off the top of my little philosopher’s head.
SOCRATES stands up and takes a drink. He becomes very theatrical.
SOCRATES: I think Medea is… misunderstood. Let me ask you this: what is the difference between Medea killing her children and Agamemnon killing his? What is the difference between Medea getting rid of her kids and Athenians discarding unwanted infants? There isn’t. All people deserve honor, Athenian or not. And I think Medea is included in that.
SOCRATES drinks. There is silence. HECTOR and SAPPHO begin applauding and cheering. SOCRATES bows.
SAPPHO: Oh Socrates you are so wise! How do you come up with these things?
SOCRATES: (laughs) Well Sappho, true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. And I know that you know that I know more than you will ever know!
SOCRATES begins chanting his name (SO-CRA-TES!) He tries to get the audience to chant with him. He goes down to get high fives from the audience. SAPPHO, HECTOR, SLAVE, and NARRATOR just watch.