The Vortex Repertory Company's Underground

Driven by Lisa B. Thompson's powerful text and masterful acting, this new drama drops a truth bomb

Jeffrey “DaShade” Johnson (l) and Marc Pouhé in <i>Underground</i>
Jeffrey “DaShade” Johnson (l) and Marc Pouhé in Underground (Photo by Errich Petersen)

Mason Dixon and Kyle Brown are both well acquainted with the disadvantages of being black in America. Since their university days, the two men have actively fought for a better life for themselves and for the people of color around them. As college students, they were on-fire activists, and now, as middle-aged adults, each man still fights for social justice in his own way – Mason (affectionately nicknamed "Dix") battles it out as a very successful lawyer, while Kyle has found other, more extreme avenues of cultural warfare.

On short notice, these old friends have an impromptu reunion at Mason's brownstone in Albany, N.Y., (a historical landmark, as it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad). As the night goes on, the men learn that the FBI is currently in the midst of a manhunt for the leader of a radical organization known as "The New Movement" responsible for bombing empty buildings and statues of Confederate ghosts past. As the snowdrifts outside grow, so does the tension between Kyle and Mason, and as the feds close in, both men are faced with a painfully difficult decision.

The Vortex Repertory Company's latest world premiere, Underground, explores the different paths from marginalization to liberation and asks some very difficult questions along the way. This very timely and important work does not shy away from asking things like: How thin is the line between an activist and a radical? Must taking a stand in the face of a culture that is oppressive and violent include violence to be effective? What happens to an organization (and its participants) when violence becomes part of its manifesto? Especially when the goal of said organization is social justice?

Lisa B. Thompson's script is rife with historical echoes, from the Underground Railroad to the origin of the Black Panthers to more recent happenings such as the murder of Trayvon Martin. Her flawless text, combined with top-notch acting by a couple of masterful performers – Marc Pouhé and Jeffery "DaShade" Johnson – and the ever vigilant eye of director Rudy Ramirez (an exemplary artist/activist himself) results in a hypnotically engaging story that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. In addition to its historical references, Underground explores the power structures within radicalized movements and illustrates how ideological acts of violence can change the focus of a revolutionary goal – sometimes derailing it completely.

While each theatrical element in Underground is a triumph, the acting is the standout reason to see the Vortex's production. Pouhé's depiction of Kyle Brown is powerful and riveting, dripping with fiery charisma, while Johnson, as Mason Dixon, finds a more peaceful and self-focused warrior. In the face of such commanding (and thoroughly realistic) performances, one could almost imagine being a fly on the wall as Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (who also met at university) founded the movement that eventually became the Black Panther Party. As the story goes on, Pouhé's and Johnson's characters become walking paragons of the two main Panther principles: militant self-defense and community activism.

Time and time again in the play, we see the idea of justice clash with the idea of war in an almost irreconcilable manner, and ultimately, the audience is left with no resolution. This is a very intentional (and powerful) move by the playwright that ensures thoughtful reflection and discussion after the curtain drops. Underground is more than a play. It's a powerful weapon of change – a truth bomb that will get conversations started. And in our current cultural climate, these conversations desperately need to be had.


The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through April 8
Running time: 2 hr.

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Vortex Repertory Company, Lisa B. Thompson, Rudy Ramirez, Marc Pouhé, Jeffery "DaShade" Johnson, Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter, Trayvon Martin, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Underground Railroad

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