By Marcina Zaccaria


Richard Johnson performs in Pappy on Da Underground Railroad at The Gene Frankel Theatre.


This solo performance, in recognition of Black History Month, has an effortless flow. The live piano music is smooth, and seamlessly threads together the pieces of the story. Musical Director Terry Wallstein (Technicolor, Look At Me) plays in perfect accordance with Johnson, bringing life to gospel music. Finding the richness of tone deep within his belly, Johnson (whose latest show Rejoice, performed at the Church of the Intersession) sings spirituals, lifting us out of pain and into the light.


With gospel classics like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Wade in the Water, The Gospel Train, this is a transcendent journey. With every sense of the heaven above him, Johnson’s character finds strength in God as easily as he finds the strength to break free in his own body. His legs carry him to a Promised Land, away from the shackles of forced labor.


With absolute fidelity, Richard Johnson – a cabaret performer and who has performed at Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex – reveals a slave story. There’s nothing glossy or Movie of the Week about the quality of his presentation. He makes no concessions when discussing the violence of the slave trade. Seeing a fellow slave whipped and hanged is one of the most harrowing events he experiences before finding freedom. Johnson becomes enlightened about the Underground Railroad after meeting Harriet, a character based on Harriet Tubman. With the Railroad deep beneath him (and many stops to go along the way), Johnson learns that he can escape.


Johnson wades through the water, finding paths a Station House, stockbrokers, and other freed slaves. Johnson, as both narrator and slave, finds that there is truth in the history and the struggle. Director Keith Allen (For Colored Boys) relies on authenticity of movement and Costume Design by Luis Rivera, evoking a 1700s world where independence is a few stations away. The lighting, designed by Stephon Legere, provides hints of worlds beyond. With such a spare set at The Gene Frankel Theater (only a few cubes and a bench), the show relies on Johnson’s acting, the complexity of the monologues, and the appreciation of the spiritual songs.


Though there is texture and dimension in the story, there does seem to be something missing. The overall effect is a hollow sense of loss, not catharsis. Johnson never really looks like a shaman, channeling the anguish of slaves. He does intone a few different characters, but mostly uses first person narrative in an historical context to give factual information (and even provides a Q&A after the show). Audience members walk out feeling like textbook scholars, seeing the struggle of the slave trade from an objective viewpoint.


Pappy on Da Underground Railroad was performed at The Gene Frankel Theatre, located at 24 Bond Street (between Bowery and Lafayette) in New York City’s East Village. It is playing until February 27th.