By Louis DeVaughn Nelson (@hokum_arts)
Photo credit: Jonathan Staff
There I sat listening to stories about the history of the theater, looking at all the relics of former times – all the old furniture and performance posters. An old dusty typewriter caught my eye. It sat upon a wary old radiator that was emanating an immense amount of heat on my frozen face; I had just stepped in from the outside world and I was soaked in cold. I was taken back to the past and I (for a moment before led to my seat) relished in all the vintage trinkets, thinking about the stories behind them.
Tucked away on the rocky road that is Bond Street just off of Broadway in the East Village is the historic and humble Gene Frankel Theatre. Its namesake is derivative of a late and great man whose commitment to socio-political performance has contributed to relics of American theater history. Through Frankel’s direction of the 1961 production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, he catapulted the careers of James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Maya Angelou. A dedicated artist and advocate, much of the work that Frankel embarked upon on- and off-Broadway for 30 years were racially charged pieces that exposed untold stories of strife amongst oppressed communities.
Akin to many productions held under the roof of the Gene Frankel Theater and the product of his legacy comes Pappy on the Underground Railroad, a narrated one-man show that tells intimate accounts of the experiences of slaves traveling to freedom precursory to the Civil War. Created by and staring cabaret veteran, Richard Johnson, the timely piece is a powerful sentiment that addresses a rarely mentioned topic of the American slavery era.
Melding varying characterizations with moving spirituals, the interweaving of story and song creates a palpable amount of emotion in light of the different but all the same story told about these tragic times. The piece is educational in its own right and Johnson uses the title character of Pappy as a genuine instructor of important knowledge in regards to many of the intricate details that were part of the Underground Railroad itself. Signals and cues become clear, and the truly underground methodology that African-Americans discovered to aid in escape is astounding. But the most astounding aspect touched upon here is the evident nature that many of the slaves that endured such heinous conditions were hesitant in accepting a better fate for themselves.
While the pacing and harmony (along with Harvard, Yale and Juilliard affiliated Musical Director Terry Wallstein) could have been smoothed out, overall the value of Pappy on the Underground Railroad is primarily educational, with its entertainment value coming in at a close second. It is a valiant effort and an important undertaking from Richard Johnson, easily commendable, and very appreciated.
I took a look at the charming bygone typewriter before I left and I tried to devise in my head what would be the first few sentences I would write about the show on my laptop when I got home. At the beginning of the night I was harkening back to a time claiming to myself that I was born too late and I wondered what my world would have been like if I had to write on those novel technological antiques of yesteryear. And then thanks to the evening’s program I thought further back, and further back, and what my life would have been like. And then I took relief in what was to come instead.
Pappy on da Underground Railroad will play the Gene Frankel Theatre through Saturday, February 27. For information and tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets (click here).