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Bob Goepfert Reviews "American Underground" At Barrington Stage

A scene from "American Underground"
Daniel Rader
Barrington Stage Company
A scene from "American Underground"

Playwright Brent Askari is a terrific storyteller.  His play, “American Underground,” which is being given its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., is a taut political drama that has you totally engrossed for its entire 90-minute running time.  
The father Rog, is a handsome, athletically built African-American college professor.  His librarian wife Anna is a Latino, who fears for their college-age son in a world filled with hate.  

They are part of an Underground Railroad that helps political fugitives flee the country. Their son Jeff is on the  cusp of being an adult and must choose if and how to help the oppressed.

The oppressed in “American Underground” is every Muslim.  Every Muslim.   After a horrific bombing at a major sporting event by Muslim terrorists, every Muslim has been branded an enemy.  No matter where they were born or how long they’ve lived in the U.S., if caught, they are incarcerated or put to death.  One can only imagine what happens to those who are discovered helping a Muslim.

One evening a young Muslim female, Kourtney, appears at their home looking for help.  Her unexpected arrival is a total break in procedure and in a world where trust is a rare commodity, suspicions are raised.  The next day Sherri, a government official, knocks on the door to investigate the family and their involvement in a book club used as a cover for them helping Muslims to flee. 

Askari sets the situation and defines the characters brilliantly.  He is even better ratcheting up the suspense and keeping the audience wondering what will happen next.   When the climax arrives it is both unexpected and violent.  The actors each serve their characters well and director Julianne Boyd keeps the tension at a high level.  At play’s end, you are a bundle of emotion.

The problem is within a short time after leaving the theater you realize that Askari’s talents have manipulated you as much as they’ve entertained you.   

“American Underground” is set in what a character terms “the near distant future.”  That it takes place in America, the totalitarian state on display is terrifying and acerbates the political paranoia that many live with every day.  

Askari creates a world in which only good and bad people exist.  In such a world, eliminating bad people is the only way to create a safe environment.

How that elimination happens is predicated on the philosophy that the end justifies the means.   It’s the mentality that permits genocide of every form.   Is the Holocaust something we can ever put behind us?   

These examples seem to justify the methods the family uses to fight tyranny.  If you can save lives, what should be your limits?

It’s a tricky moral dilemma.   Today most people have nothing but respect for the bravery of those who helped slaves escape a life of servitude through the Underground Railroad.  But few applaud those cases where a slave uprising murdered slave-owning families.

You feel good at end when justice is served.    But, if you believe justice should never be achieved through unjust means, this play will bother you.   

Certainly Askari is right in raising a yellow caution flag about the evils that can result from a totalitarian state.  Indeed, “American Underground” might even serve as cathartic relief for those who fear the United States is moving towards a place where no individual will have protection under the Constitution.

Fear of the future might make compelling theater, but to be effective in solving social problems it also needs to offer peaceful solutions.  This is a virtue lacking in Askari’s writing.

I don’t want to live in the world of the play.   Neither do I want society believing violence is an answer to anything.  I’d much rather see a play that is a rational plea for peace and understanding with positive solutions. 

Indeed, on the ride home, I kept thinking of a 1960s quote from Walt Kelly’s political cartoon “Pogo” that sums up my feelings about “American Underground.”  It says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

“American Underground” at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass.   Through October 20.  For tickets and schedule information 413-236-8888 or barringtonstageco.org 

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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