We seem to live in an era of extremes. Rarely can a matter of discussion or debate can end without individuals fiercely defending diametric standpoints. From the heaviest of social issues to something as simple as one’s taste in films, there seem to be few subjects in which one’s stance can’t be vehemently opposed by someone who audaciously dares to have a different opinion. It’s troubling because most of these discussions leave room for grey area that seldom few dare to even acknowledge. It’s all or nothing. This however does lead to some fantastic drama. For example, one of my favorite plays of all time, The Sunset Limited, begins simply enough with two men defending their respective stances that cannot coexist. Scenarios like these always lead to good discussions that allow both sides to engage audiences’ sympathies and frustrations as they see the willingness and stubbornness behind each side.
Underground is a world premiere production by Lisa B. Thompson that follows Mason and Kyle, two black men who were radical protesters for racial equality in their college years, meet up for the first time in years. Both men have done well for themselves, but the ever-present reality of racial inequality looms over their reunion as they their polar thoughts on the matter drives a greater wedge between them.
Starring Jeffery Da’Shade Johnson (Mason Dixon) and Marc Pouhé (Kyle Brown) as the sole actors of the show, both of whom I’ve enjoyed greatly in previous productions, most of Underground hangs on their capable shoulders. And thankfully they perform beautifully. Johnson and Pouhé certainly share the chemistry of old friends despite (or even because of) their constant disagreements and bickering. You instantly get the feeling that these two have been to hell and back together. Johnson plays the more mild-mannered and accepting of the two while Brown’s performance is outgoing with a hint of eccentricity behind it. These styles fit their respective roles well given their characters’ outlook on racial inequality, the focal point around which most of their discussions balance. Johnson (as Dixon) has more of a live-and-let-live attitude, using himself as an example of someone who came from extreme poverty and worked to the be in the affluent position he is in today stating “Some of us have better because some of us do better,” whereas Pouhé (as Brown) is much more militant and accusatory in his beliefs. Each man speaks passionately about his side, and at once you want to agree and disagree with both. Dixon’s message is certainly peaceful but often brushes aside the severity of racial inequality in America, while Brown’s push for change is admirable though often goes too far in how he wishes to achieve his means. In another sense they represent an overly-focused obsession with the past and future while ignoring the present; Brown can’t seem to escape his Black Panther days while Dixon focuses on what’s to come as opposed to what’s happening in the present. They’re two well-meaning extremes that simply cannot coexist, and that’s why they make for fascinating characters. Neither is the “right” man; they’re simply human beings with differing ideals. And that’s quality drama.
As has become expected of most productions I attend at the Vortex, Ann Marie Gordan’s set fits the mold of the play perfectly. Dixon’s sleek living room offers immediate insight into his character as well as a clean atmosphere to juxtapose the harsh and ugly conversations to come. As if to signify Underground’s theme in a single image, a small chess set ready to play is illuminated far upstage in a position of prominence. Beyond the board’s literally application within the plot (chess often being within flashbacks between Kyle and Mason) the black and white iconography says everything about what is about to follow; two extremes advancing upon one another until one loses.
Honestly the only small (and I do mean small) issue I have with Thompson’s new script is the choice to name one of the characters Mason Dixon in (what I assume has to be) reference to the infamous Mason-Dixon Line dividing the north and south of the Mid-Atlantic. Not that the name was distracting beyond an initial glance at it in the program, but it simply felt a tad tongue-in-cheek given the weight of the play’s subject matter.
Otherwise, I found Thompson’s new script to thoroughly engage and entertain (and aspect that easily could have fallen off the radar with a story such as this), Johnson and Pouhé’s performances are powerful, and the production as a whole a solid piece of theatre that doesn’t dare to give us answers but bring to light the challenge that comes with finding the right path for protecting you and your own. It’s the kind of production that utilizes the intimacy of theatre to its finest, and deserves your time and attention.
Underground continues at the Vortex Repertory Theatre for one more week from Wednesday April 5th to Saturday April 8th at 8pm each night.