Lisa B. Thompson
Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues: Three Plays
Northwestern University Press, 2020
Reviewed by I. B. Hopkins
In an interview with Joan Morgan appended to this collection, the playwright Lisa B. Thompson notes that “there is a creative freedom that comes from isolation.” She places herself in a lineage of “disruptive and innovative storytellers” that links her work with that of Ntozake Shange and Issa Rae, arguing that the Black experience in Northern California creates conditions for unique experimentation and “permission to tell the truth.” Underground, Monroe, and The Mamalogues—three plays recently produced and now anthologized together—put those principles of narrative freedom into practice by iterating on the themes of class, race, and gender through formally divergent dramas. Thompson’s concurrent line as an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin plays well with her interests as a playwright, “dancing on the slash,” as she puts it, between academic, pedagogical, and artistic investigation. In each mode, she is turning over the contradictions that co-create dialogue between race, class, and gender in America. Creative freedom, however, is always qualified when discussing collaborative arts, and this collection also amplifies the contributions of the Austin (and broader) theater communities in which these works premiered. Tellingly, Thompson has even included separate playlists in her notes preceding each script. They firmly place each play in the world it imagines and may even offer instructions for reading. The playwright indicates that these songs are intended for practical use in production design, for “setting the mood,” and for inspiration.
The two-hander Underground focuses narrowly on a pair of men whose story unfolds over the course of a winter night in present-day Albany, New York. Like the 1855 brownstone that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad and in which they become temporarily immured by a snowstorm, any impressiveness or unfamiliarity the estranged friends feel upon reuniting quickly gives way to the weight of history. When Kyle Brown unexpectedly pays a visit to his friend from college, Mason Dixon, his reasons are thin and his eye keen as he remarks on the home’s fine finishes. These signify major class markers to be negotiated between lawyer Mason and itinerant activist Kyle, but more poignantly they cannot even agree on what to call each other. Kyle rehearses the names of their youths in California—K and Dix—as one layer of his “performance as a ‘boy from the ‘hood.’” Mason meanwhile projects the stability of his first name suggests even as he downplays his effort to straddle the blatant, invisible geohistorical line from which he cannot escape. Nomenclature cuts to the quick of their two-man drama: “Nicknames ain’t childish,” Kyle boils over near the end of the play, after being corrected once again, “They’re about history. Friendship. Connection. Blackness.” Both men have become experts in recontextualizing themselves in the matrix of their setting, and in each case, their counterparts alone can read the ideology undergirding habit.
The night unfolds through careful revelation and suspicious motives once their confinement is certain. Rather than ginning up unearned stakes, however, Thompson contrives the storm as a departure into “the surrealism of the American racial landscape.” The Ibsenesque living room, described in detail and even pressed in upon by snow, stages flashbacks and a metaphysical chess match. The two circle each other, relitigating their days as student activists and debating the rise of a militant organization with which Kyle sympathizes. Their differences of opinion dance in the shadows of analogous ideological divides among Black thinkers, recalling W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington or Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. At every turn, Thompson complicates the moral orientations of these characters, and that deep investigation results from their complimentary access to each other’s origins and trajectories.
In Monroe, we see the playwright’s sense of historical gravity borne out and even at times grazing the mythic. Thompson’s family moved from Monroe, Louisiana to California in the early twentieth century, according to the Morgan interview, and the character Clyde James’s desire to leave the town to establish a new life in San Francisco neatly parallels that journey. It is, of course, also a microcosm of the Great Migration, and the title may faintly allude to an ironic inversion of the American Colonization Society with which President James Monroe was famously allied. Thompson’s drama takes place in Monroe, Louisiana in 1946, under the oppression of lynch-mob violence. Its prologue movingly describes Clyde cutting down the lifeless body of his friend in pantomime. The image is brutal, tender, and positions his desire to leave the town as entirely epic and with mortal consequences. The supernatural obstacle to his departure is the play’s other protagonist, Cherry Henry. Pleasantly saccharine as the puns that characterize her, Cherry is a pious young woman famous in Monroe for her cherry pies and who believes herself impregnated by immaculate conception. Thompson litters the town with mythic elements—a sacrosanct pond, cars rolling down streets like demigods, and ambrosial baked goods. Intriguingly, the play never debunks Cherry’s claim to be the “true conduit” between the soil of Louisiana and the “Almighty.” It is through the young woman’s inscrutability that the playwright certifies her departure from traditional historical drama.
The playwright’s vision of the past in this play suggests that the south claims a paranormal grasp over Black prospective refugees, and the innovation of Monroe is to physically manifest that hold in a way that disguises itself in religion and familial futurity. The murder of Jefferson (Cherry’s brother and Clyde’s best friend) that was featured in the prologue sets their narrative arcs into motion while their romantic attraction, economic stagnation, and the threat of race-based violence ensure their collision. In what is essentially a family drama, Thompson models the tremendous difficulty of leaving while making no assurances that the characters will prosper when they make it to California. A somewhat abrupt ending leaves the audience wondering what will happen once Clyde and Cherry leave town, perhaps casting the audience among the residents of Monroe who will not get to find out the fate of their dispersed community.
The third play in this collection, The Mamalogues, stages a fictional retreat for middle-class Black single mothers during which Thompson instructs productions to “Whenever possible, invite the audience to engage as if they are attending the retreat too.” She makes a special note to say that “this play is a love letter to all black single mothers,” and the class consciousness implied bears out throughout the text. Three women who fit the four criteria of the retreat lead the audience in participatory exercises, and here too we might understand that drawing attention to audiences’ composition seems to be a point of intervention for Thompson.
The meeting verges playfully on absurdism as Tasha, Lauren, and Beverly share their stories of middle-class Black single motherhood. Importantly, though, these are not monologues; the women are sharing in each other’s stories, donning rapid-fire characters and co-creating stream-of-consciousness-styled fugues. Each of the fifteen scenes isolates episodes such as childbirth, taking Black children to the park, traveling with a family, or talking to young children about the difference between “the N-word and the friend word.” They appear and resolve fluidly. They often resist the need to pause and tangle with fraught realizations: “there is something quite unnatural about motherhood,” for example, or Lauren speculating what her grandmother would think of her paying other women to clean her house, or even analogies between the pregnant women on a slave ship in 1619 and those in US prisons today. Instead, they offer a punchline and the irresistibility of moving on. If they reach any conclusion, it must be the celebration of their “sisterhood of motherhood,” and the playwright tests the bounds of the community the play celebrates by inviting all audience members to share in the group mantra: “We are proud Black single mothers and with our strong sisterhood behind us there’s nothing we can’t do.”
E. Patrick Johnson writes in the forward to this collection that “The focus on the black middle class in these plays is less about black triumphalism than it is about the slippages and foibles of such a class position.” Similarly intricate negotiations between promise and compromise characterize each of the strands of identity at work in Thompson’s plays, and in the trio collected here, we see the playwright working through a kind of disentanglement that is only possible in through community. Although this edition could understandably publicize her work and engender further interest from theater companies who might consider these highly producible scripts, this volume also offers readers a valuable sense of the power made possible by shared experience.