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.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through April 8
Where: Vortex, 2307 Manor Road