‘Underground’ brings Dostoevsky to pandemic-era Philadelphia

The classic Dostoevsky novel “Notes from Underground” is retold online as a Black man emerging from decades of self-isolation.

Damien J. Wallace, playing Underground Man in EgoPo’s production of “Underground.”

Damien J. Wallace, playing Underground Man in EgoPo’s production of “Underground.” (Screenshot)

Inspired by the way COVID-19 has reshaped our lives, the EgoPo theater company chose “Isolations” as the theme for their current season.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella “Notes from Underground,” though written 156 years ago, offered an apt protagonist for the pandemic era: a man who has not interacted with another person for 35 years.

EgoPo’s version, “Underground,” reimagines Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as a Black Philadelphian living through COVID-19 and the summer of George Floyd protests, with some shadowy connection to the 1985 MOVE bombing that occurred shortly before he went underground.

Now, after 35 years, the Underground Man is making contact with the outside world… through an anonymous blog.

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The blog starts out adamant about revealing the true nature of mankind as he sees it, having distanced himself from people to better observe their philosophical underpinnings.

“Civilization, or at least what the white patriarchy has done to it, has made mankind more bloodthirsty,” the Underground Man says, talking to a web camera while dressed in a black hoodie, face mask, sunglasses and fingerless gloves. He appears to be in some kind of darkly lit bunker and clearly does not want to be identified. The sound of his voice is digital altered.

“Man knows no greater enjoyment than bloodshed, and man knows no other way to control the masses than bloodshed,” he says.

Later, doubt creeps in. Subsequent posts see his commitment to being underground start to waver.

“There’s not one thing, not one word I’ve said that I believe anymore,” he says. “I mean, I believe it, but at the same time I feel – I suspect – I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want anymore.”

Like Dostoevsky’s original character, this Underground Man is an unreliable narrator. Ultimately, his reasons for going underground are neither political nor revolutionary, but rooted in his own flaws.

“Coming from an African American man’s perspective, there’s a certain mantle that we should pick up for the next generation to do better than we did,” said Damien J. Wallace, EgoPo’s current artist-in-residence, who helped create and stars in the performance. “He didn’t do that, and he felt like he paid a heavy price for it. He was living that price, and now he’s trying to fix it.”

Wallace and his theater partner, director Dane Eissler, are careful not to reveal too much about the play — “The whole thing is the Underground Man is cryptic!” said Wallace — but they say it is directly shaped by contemporary Philadelphia. The play even mentions City Council’s recent apology for the infamous MOVE bombing.

At the same time, Underground is entirely fictional.

“It was important for us that we don’t create a fiction living inside a real story,” Eissler said. “We wanted the [MOVE] event to be peripheral. … It was an important part of history in Philadelphia and we didn’t want to tarnish it with our story.”

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Audiences receive the story over the course of five days through a timed series of texts, emails, blog posts, and audio and video posts published by the play’s protagonist. Then, the audience is invited to watch the main event: a long, pre-recorded video wherein the Underground Man explains the series of events which brought him to his current mindset.

“We’re not very tech-savvy individuals,” admitted Eissler. “So the fact that we’re creating this show that is so tech-knowledgeable, and Damien is playing a character who is supposed to be this tech wizard, it makes me laugh … I had to teach Damien how to use Zoom.”

Wallace co-wrote the play and embodies the main character, who spends much of the time articulating his thoughts about the hypocrisies of society. Though Wallace is playing a role, he used some of his personal experiences in the performance.

“I have actually been living in isolation pretty much since the pandemic started,” said Wallace, who calls himself an introvert. “I tell people, ‘I can’t come to your house: pandemic!’ I’m a homebody. It gave me a built-in excuse to be in my world and not be criticized for it.”

He said his version of Underground Man is a peek into the psyche of a Black man “living in a capitalist society that was not necessarily constructed for his success.” Wallace brings his own anger and vulnerability to the character.

“There are times when you wish someone would knock on the door, or pick up the phone and say, ‘Are you OK?’” Wallace said.

But the protagonist hasn’t checked in on anyone, and one has checked in on him.

“He made this bed and now he’s sleeping in it.”

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