Slavery Saga has Contemporary Connections

Jun 26, 2019
Originally published on July 8, 2019 3:20 pm

An award-winning film, written by a Tallahasseean, is coming back to his hometown as a musical. Now the on-stage version of “Underground” comes to the Cascades Park Amphitheatre next Saturday evening, July 6.

The person overseeing the production is Lili Forbes.

“I am the director and also composer for the musical ‘Underground.’ Akil DuPont who is a native Tallahasseean is the person that wrote and produced the film that we’ve now turned into a musical.”

DuPont, a graduate of the FSU Film School, released the movie “Underground” almost 10 years ago. It racked up nearly two dozen awards. Forbes’ re-imagining of the film as a live performance has already been on the road.

“It’s been debuted before in Atlanta twice, in New York as a stage-read, in North Carolina and now we’re bringing it home in a different format; sort of a concert format rather than a stage play. More along a ‘readers’ theatre’ stage reading but we’ve added some elements like dance and all the music.”

All that, insisted Forbes, serves the sweeping tale of one slave’s faith and determination to gain freedom for himself and his family.

“Bringing a lot of the elements of the African-American culture, diaspora, even some of the African and Caribbean cultures together. We’re telling the stories from the perspective of the hero saving his daughter and doing everything that he has to do and the people that he meets along the way. And we have abolitionists and other slaves on the plantation that we meet. So we’re just taking everyone along on this emotional journey. And what happens, you have to be there to find out!”

Alexander Williams plays “Bali,” the lead character in the story. Although set in a time long-removed from the present, he sees many contemporary connections.

“It’s something that we need to deal with because it still goes on to this day; not slavery, but racism and oppression. It’s not as out-loud as it was back then, but it’s still really prevalent to this day. Honestly. It happens everywhere.”

“Bali” escapes from the plantation with his daughter “Amalla.” She’s played by Nike Eaton who believes only a change of heart and mind can overcome racist and oppressive behaviors. Can a production like “Underground” bring about those changes?

“Yes and no,” she responded thoughtfully. “Because most people in power like the way things are. The way the world is built, that’s everything! If they want a change, they’ll make it. If we want a change, we’ll make it.”

Sometimes even the victims of oppression become comfortable with the status quo. Belinda Bruno-Piverger plays “Demby,” a plantation house slave who is essentially kidnapped by “Bali” as he makes his break for freedom.  Demby's preferred treatment led to a discussion of "colorism." That's the discrimination seen within the black community based on skin tone.

“Back then in slavery days, they had the lighter skinned slaves in the house and the darker skinned slaves in the fields and you’ll start to notice why one is favored over the other and for what reasons,” said Hillary Eaton.  She plays "Abigail" in the production and is also Nike's sister.

Cast member Brian Gallagher, a FAMU student who is the son of a white dad and Hispanic mom, acknowledged the existence of colorism, but hasn’t experienced it himself.

“Even as a mixed-race kid, I look more light-skinned than some of my peers who might be darker than me. So I cannot fully comprehend or relate to whatever they’ve gone through growing up or even what their families went through before them. I’m essentially living through to the best of my abilities as a performer what I’ve been told about and do my best to respect what happened.”

A production of the Cross Cultural Coalition, the Sankofa Concert presentation of “Underground” takes place the evening of Saturday, July 6 at the Capital City Amphitheatre in Cascades Park. Admission is free and gates open at 7:00 p.m.

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