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Mindy Aloff


"Pappy on Da Underground Railroad"


"Pappy on Da Underground Railroad"
Conceived and Performed by Richard Johnson
Directed by Keith Allen
Music Direction by Terry Wallstein
Lighting Design by Stephon Legere
Costume Design and Art by Luis Rivera
Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street, New York, NY
Opened Thursday, February 11, 2016
Closing: Saturday, February 27, 2016
Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets $20 General Admission
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff.

"Pappy" displays a quilt pattern that was used to guide slaves on the Underground Railroad.

About a dozen audience members were scattered around the Gene Frankel
Theatre's 74 seats at the matinee I attended of "Pappy on Da Underground
Railroad," and nearly all of us appeared to be white. One of the more knowledgeable members of the group was a lad of perhaps ten, sitting in the front row with his mom, dad, and slightly younger sister. When the African American actor, singer, and cabaret performer Richard Johnson, in character as "Pappy" of the title, turned to the audience and asked who knew what the Underground Railroad was, this young fellow was the only one of us to raise his hand. His sister, like her bro, also watched the one-hour-long, one-actor show intently. When, after taking his bows, Mr. Johnson answered questions from the house, that young lady asked what lye is—a substance that had figured in one of the show's horrific anecdotes early on, in that case, concerning suicide. Johnson's impressive answer moved gently from detergent to much stronger materials. He didn't evade an explanation, but he also carefully built his real one so that a grade-school child could absorb the implications of lye's effect on the body when someone drinks it.

Richard Johnson as "Pappy." Photo by Farnaz Taherimotlagh

The late Gene Frankel was one of Johnson's acting teachers in New York. If Frankel's classes contributed to Johnson's expertise for quickly taking on the voices and personae of several characters—male and female, old and young, in a diapason of emotions—then Frankel's legacy was well served. "Pappy" is built like a cross between oratorio and the storytelling genre of classical Indian bharata natyam dancing, where a soloist dancer "becomes" a series of characters enacting a story. In the case of Johnson's production, the story relates the memoirs of a fictional Southern field slave who flees North for his freedom and, in the course of his journey, meets the renowned Harriet Tubman—the escaped Maryland slave who, in the words of Wikipedia, "rescue[d]approximately seventy enslaved families and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safehouses known as the Underground Railroad." Spirituals that were actually sung by slaves before and after the Civil War, as well as gospel songs written as late as the beginning of the 20th century but whose lyrics embody the right feelings in Biblical imagery, are sung by the actor, with piano accompaniment by musical director Terry Wallstein, to punctuate and, sometimes, soothe the imagination after distressing narrative events. In his singing, Johnson had a pleasing, cultivated voice—a baritone, sounded like—which worked well in this small venue. His acting voice was often more assertive, and his infusions into it of heroic emotions could verge on the melodramatic, but his point was clearly to get his audience to feel those emotions, and, in the case of this audience member, he succeeded.

Richard Johnson as Pappy.

Johnson's story begins with Pappy's own traumatic childhood, when, as a small boy, he is sold away from his bitterly weeping mother, who is horribly punished for her show of emotion. It continues as the child grows into manhood, witnessing one atrocity after another by slaveholders against their slaves, all described in rivetting, even occasionally in brutalist, detail. Pappy's life takes a beneficial turn when he meets up with Tubman, who teaches him how to be a “conductor,” like herself, of fleeing slaves to freedom. Johnson includes the poignant detail that Pappy also has to convince the slaves he's attempting to help that freedom, despite the fearful hardships in trying for it, is even possible. Two of the most arresting passages were entirely educational. One is Pappy's recounting of the "codes" in some of the Spirituals that, when sung, indicated by the singer to the auditor that the coast was clear to run ("Swing Low Sweet Chariot") or that there was the threat of dogs down the road and so the auditor should get into a body of water to throw off their scent ("Wading in the Water"). (Many of these Spirituals refer to the Exodus chapter in the Old Testament.) The other passage I found inspiring was when Pappy took out a collection of squares containing quilt patterns and decoded their meanings from slave to slave: the Bear Claw (food and water are nearby), the Wagon Wheel (you'll see a wagon soon: get inside, lie down and pull the blankets over you, and someone will transport you to the Underground Railroad's next "station"), the Flock of Geese (travel in the direction the birds fly). For this segment, Johnson sat on a rude bench, one of several simple objects—a couple of wooden cubes, for instance—that are placed in zigzag continuity into the depth of the theater's long and narrow rectangular playing space, then lit up individually to function as markers of new locations for new chapters in Pappy's remembrances.

"Pappy on Da Underground Railroad" is fine as a Richard Johnson vehicle in a small, Off- Off-Broadway theater. However, it could also be a touching show for school groups, especially for classes in the midst of studying American history. And it might work for audiences of all ages in some museums, such as The New-York Historical Society, in association with relevant exhibitions. The variety of skills it requires from a single performer might make it, too, a good instrument to teach to conservatory music and acting students, a kind of recital that would also serve as an exam.

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