Race, politics and friendship take center stage in ‘Underground’

Marc Pouhé, left, and Jeffery Da’Shade Johnson star in “Underground.” Contributed by Errich Petersen.

In today’s world, black Americans need a variety of tools at their disposal just to survive, let alone to thrive. The diverse — and divisive — methods available to them are the focus of “Underground,” an intense, necessary new drama by Lisa B. Thompson, playing at the Vortex through April 8.

Thompson is an artist and a scholar, an acclaimed playwright and a respected associate professor of African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, and there is artistry as well as intellectualism on display in “Underground.” With simple, inconspicuous staging from director Rudy Ramirez, and two powerful performances by Jeffery Da’Shade Johnson and Marc Pouhé, Vortex’s production of “Underground,” the play’s world premiere, is a vital addition to one of the most complex and troubling conversations of our time.

The setup is deceptively simple. Mason Dixon (Johnson), a successful lawyer, receives a visit from his old college friend Kyle Brown (Pouhé). Dixon has not seen Brown for a while, and immediately Brown appears to be up to something, searching Dixon’s home for recording devices and sneaking photos of his legal folders. The play unfolds from there as a verbal and metaphorical chess match between the pair.

Though united by history, the two are estranged in the present. Dixon has chosen to assimilate into the largely white society of upstate New York, where he owns a house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Brown, on the other hand, is disturbed by this choice and motivated by a far more radical approach to black liberation, including vocal support for a borderline terrorist organization called New Movement. Their differences of opinion reflect similar historical divides among black thinkers, from W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thompson seamlessly marries personal and political tension, creating a sense of drama and dread through a simple conversation that ranges over topics from Black Lives Matter to the civil rights movement to reparations for slavery. None of these topics feel forced, though, arising as they do out of the natural relationship between the characters.

In the hands of a less-skilled playwright, this could easily turn into pure political discourse, but Thompson’s genius is to tie each man’s history and personality inextricably with his ideology. We find ourselves one moment sympathizing with one man’s plight while loathing his larger political beliefs, and then in the next that position is entirely reversed. “Underground” does not take sides between the two men, nor does it resolve their differences. Instead, it leaves these questions for the audience to ponder.

A complex text would be nothing without complex performances, and on that score “Underground” delivers heartily. Pouhé is seductively charming and psychologically imposing, plying his prey with carefully chosen words to win him over to his side. Johnson, conversely, displays a deep reservoir of strength behind a veneer of suburban comfort, and the slow revelation of that core power creates much of the dramatic tension. Ramirez’s direction keeps the two men contained and close, wisely eschewing ostentation to focus instead on the power of the text.

“Underground” is, indeed, a powerful new work, and Thompson’s is a crucial voice in the ongoing conversation of what it means to be black in America.

‘UNDERGROUND’
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through April 8
Where: Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: vortexrep.org

 

 

‘A Girl Named Sue’ explores important, little-discussed racial issues

“A Girl Named Sue” is a new play by Vietnamese-American playwright Christine Hoang with songs by award-winning Korean-American singer/songwriter BettySoo. Contributed by Steve Rogers Photography

Jordan Peele’s movie “Get Out” is rightfully getting a great deal of positive press and critical acclaim for its interrogation of racial issues surrounding a relationship between a black man and a white woman, couched within a wildly entertaining horror film. However, as Austin playwright Christine Hoang’s new play “A Girl Named Sue” shows, there are more shades of color in America than just white and black.

“A Girl Named Sue,” produced by Color Arc Productions and playing through March 12 at Trinity Street Theatre, is something unique for Austin theater — a play that is about the modern Asian-American experience.

More specifically, “A Girl Named Sue” explores the intricacies of a budding relationship between a 19-year-old Vietnamese woman, Sue (played by Uyen-Anh Dang), and an older black man, Cash (Matrex Kilgore). Not only does the couple have to negotiate their racial and cultural differences, but their disparity in age and experience also becomes a problem. Added to the thick of this are Sue’s mother (Hoang), as well as her best friend, Talisa (Toni Lorene Baker), and Cash’s friend/boss, Rashad (Jeffrey Da’Shade Johnson), both of whom are African-American.

The vast majority of the play takes place in a coffee shop near a college campus where the conversation flows as freely as the java. That setting largely emblematizes “A Girl Named Sue,” which is a caffeinated play of ideas. Witty dialogue and energetic performances provide the driving engine of the show, which is large on discussion and relatively low on action.

That’s not a bad thing, of course; Hoang is far more interested in exploring her ideas through dialogue and humor than through visual spectacle. Director Karen Jambon has taken a similar approach, keeping much of the dialogue between characters largely seated while direct addresses to the audience are punctuated by standing. Anne Marie Gordon’s scenic design supports this vision, turning the theater into an intimate, slightly hipster-y coffee shop that the audience, at times, directly becomes part of.

The strongest moments in the play are when it becomes deliberately performative, whether that is through the spoken word poetry of the main characters (where Johnson’s Rashad especially shines) or the periodic musical performances by folk singer-songwriter BettySoo, whose gorgeous, moving ballads comment on the themes of the scenes they punctuate. “A Girl Named Sue” could use a bit more of these scenes that play with form and structure, along with a bit of judicious cutting of some of the longer dialogues, where the energy lags a bit.

On the whole, however, “A Girl Named Sue” is a witty, self-aware, thoughtful new play that provides a vital, but warm, perspective on one of the most difficult issues of our time — what it means to be a person of color, and especially a woman of color, in America.

“A Girl Named Sue”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through March 12

Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.

Cost: $15-$25

Information: colorarcproductions.com

Hyde Park Theatre’s ‘John’ shows love’s macabre side

Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady in "John" at Hyde Park Theatre through April 1. Contributed by Katherine Catmull
Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady in “John” at Hyde Park Theatre through April 1. Contributed by Katherine Catmull

If you want to see an Annie Baker play in Austin, Hyde Park Theatre is the place to go. Now, HPT has gone to work bringing to life Baker’s most recent play, the 2015 off-Broadway hit “John,” with the same energy and subtle verve as they put into previous productions.

“John,” playing through April 1, is the story of Jenny and Elias, a young couple staying at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Mertis, the proprietress of the B&B, seems a little odd to the couple, but they are soon consumed with their own relationship woes and find themselves confiding in her — and her elderly, blind friend Genevieve — in different, unexpected ways.

What makes “John” unique among Baker’s work is that it is the first to take a step away from intense, realistic naturalism to bring in an element of the surreal and, potentially, supernatural. Mertis’ B&B is said to be haunted, and little hints dropped throughout the course of the play lead us to think that there are strange things at work in the old house. The subtle build-up of a tense, macabre feeling resonates throughout the production, mirroring the erosion of Jenny and Elias’ relationship, where bouts of intense anger and disappointment motion towards where the true horror lies.

Director Ken Webster has chosen to fully play into the more surreal aspects of the text, with every aspect of the production playing into either the eerie atmosphere or the painfully real sniping of the young couple. The exquisitely detailed set by designer Mark Pickell puts the audience right in the middle of the B&B’s living room, putting the intimacy of the relationship under the proverbial microscope, while Don Day’s subdued lighting evokes a sensibility that dances between cozy and claustrophobic.

Katherine Catmull, as Mertis, is the mistress of all these strange happenings. She proves to be just off-kilter enough to be simultaneously charming and disturbing, for both the audience and for Jenny and Elias. Lana Dieterich, as Genevieve, is just as strange and given several powerhouse moments to shine, elucidating some of the themes at the heart of the text while also contributing to the overall sense of the uncanny.

On the other hand, Zac Thomas, as Elias, and Catherine Grady, as Jenny, are called upon to be painfully realistic within this abnormal world. Thomas’ Elias is neurotic, awkward and self-conscious in a way that is heartbreaking, tinged with moments of forcefulness that prove more frightening than anything the supernatural might provide. Grady is much more subdued and quiet, with a natural charm that makes Jenny instantly likable, if perhaps not fully trustworthy. In many ways, Grady has the hardest roll to play, and the emotional weight of the play relies on her successfully pulling it off, which she does with great success.

“John” is intentionally not the flashiest of plays, but Hyde Park Theatre’s production brings out the text’s Gothic underpinnings to create a contemporary spooky story that slowly builds in intensity towards an ultimate revelation of what may be the scariest “ghosts” of all.

“JOHN”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through April 1

Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.

Cost: $20-$26

Information: 512-479-7529, hydeparktheatre.org