Real life ignites a new thriller at Barrington Stage Company
PITTSFIELD — In the future, but perhaps not too far from now, the Underground Railroad has returned. This time, it's not fugitive slaves but Muslims using a covert network of hideaways to seek refuge in a country set against them. That's how Sherri ends up on Rog and Anna's doorstep early on in "American Underground," and that's why government agent Kourtney soon comes knocking.
The ensuing moral quandary propels Brent Askari's thriller, which is premiering at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage through Oct. 20. [Previews are tonight, Friday and Saturday; press opening is 3 p.m. Sunday]. The Bonnie and Terry Burman New Play Award winner's roots can be traced to President Donald Trump's 2016 election and Askari's family. The playwright's father hails from Iran and belongs to the Shiite branch of Islam, and many of Askari's relatives live in the U.S. So, anti-Muslim sentiments surrounding Trump's campaign and presidency have been a frequent source of distress for Askari.
"I kept having nightmare visions of where rhetoric like this could lead and, historically, where this kind of rhetoric directed at specific groups has led, and the way that I deal with anxiety and this kind of thing is often to write about it," Askari said recently during a group interview with BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd, who is directing the production, and Alan H. Green, who is playing Rog.
At first, Rog and Anna (Natascia Diaz) appear to be running a fairly conventional household in a familiar America. Salmon is on the grill, basketball on the TV. But when their college-aged son, Jeff (Justin Withers), returns home from a night at the mall, a dystopian version of the country emerges. Jeff reports that he saw bodies tied to columns near the food court, their corpses — two white, one Middle Eastern-looking — marked as traitorous. Presumably, they were members of The Network, the underground sheltering system that has been helping Muslims escape an America in which they are being confined to camps for (initially) vague security reasons. Once a Muslim woman, Sherri (Rasha Zamamiri), appears in the family's backyard, Jeff soon realizes that his parents belong to The Network, too. The discovery embroils him in a dangerous cause and further opens his eyes to a country in decay.
"The idea of the loss of innocence, it's very close to my heart," said Green, who is black, of young people of color being thrust into difficult situations.
Though Rog appreciates Jeff's noble support for the oppressed — when one of his companions at the mall began hitting the dead bodies with a poster tube, Jeff rebuked him — he's also concerned about potential witnesses to his son's behavior. He wants to protect him.
"At the end of the day, he's just worried about his son," Green said of Rog.
As they house Sherri, who lost her mother when she was young and was separated from her father and brother during their exodus, Rog and Anna debate how to make sense of the world for Jeff.
"They're really trying to bring up their son the best they can. I think they disagree on how to do it," Boyd said. "I think she sees the world a little more real than he does. I think Rog is an optimist."
Individually, characters disclose more about themselves in brief asides facilitated by lighting. Kourtney (Kathleen McNenny), a government official carrying her own complex set of motivations, even receives the solo treatment.
"It's like a flower that's just opening up. You're just finding out more and more," Boyd said.
The rest of the time, the family's living room is in the spotlight. Audience members must conjure the dystopian realm beyond the home themselves.
"So much of what's happening, because we're in this house, ends up being theater of the mind," Askari said.
"Looking into the future is always ultrainteresting to me," she said. "If only we had that special globe and we could see into it."
She appreciated that the play was a true thriller, a genre focus that was important to Askari.
"The subject matter lent itself, I feel, to that genre," Askari said. "I didn't want to write a play that was just people sitting in a room espousing political beliefs."
Askari calls it "political but not overtly partisan." For Green and Boyd, it raises questions about when and how to revolt.
"What do we accept? What do we learn to accept? Why aren't we fighting back?" Boyd said.
"That switch doesn't happen overnight," Askari said, "which is what makes it so insidious."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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