EgoPo’s innovative and highly intimate ISOLATIONS season goes Underground this December 2-6, 2020 for its next event: a world premiere multi-platform, virtual adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, Notes from Underground, starring Philadelphia’s own Damien J. Wallace. Underground is created by Wallace, this season’s Artist-in-Residence, and EgoPo’s Associate Producer, Dane Eissler. Having previously worked together in last season’s Buried Child, the pair reunites as co-creators of this newly minted piece for EgoPo’s socially-distant season. This piece is co-produced with Lawrence Theatre Company, Philadelphia’s theater for emerging black stories, of which Wallace serves as Artistic Director.
Nineteenth century Russia is transformed into contemporary Philadelphia as the “UndergroundMan” mysteriously emerges from years of isolation to reach out to you personally, letting you into his hidden past and memories of living as a black man in America. This interactive, virtual experience occurs through your phone and computer, in Facebook, email, video, and blogs.
“More than ever, the world is depending on social media and email and video conferences – most aspects of life have been shifted into the virtual realm. This mode of communication is a perfect fit for Dostoyevsky’s story in which the nameless narrator speaks to us from an unknown locale. In our new backstory, the ‘UndergroundMan’ has been inside of this virtual realm for years, and he’s going to use every tactic he can to bring you into his corner of the web to deliver his message. The fun part is that the audience members become active explorers of this virtual world, rather than passive viewers of a static, streamed performance event,” says Eissler.
Wallace and Eissler’s collaborative adaptation is responding to the struggle to achieve racial equity and humane policing occuring in Philadelphia and around the country.
“Dostoyevsky’s original novel was a direct criticism of the changing times in which he was living in Russia – societal, political, etc. – communicated by a man stuck between his darkest memories and his greatest fears. In Underground, we’re doing the same thing: responding directly to our tumultuous and unjust American 2020,” says Eissler.
Philadelphia’s own controversial history of race relations becomes the new context for Dostoyevsky’s novella. The “UndergroundMan” is now a black man in Philadelphia who went into hiding during the MOVE incidents of the 1980’s. After decades of living in isolation, he observes the seeds of society’s changing attitudes towards race and black power and reaches out to us for a chance to relive his lost life.
Damien J. Wallace, a Philadelphia native and prolific theater artist, brings his own personal experiences of racism into this work. Classic literature becomes a contemporary reckoning as this modern-day character wrestles with what it means to exist in a world of oppressors and the oppressed.
“I’ve been watching speeches of Malcolm X from the ‘60s and contemplating the 80’s MOVE events here in Philadelphia, and it’s all so relevant to what’s happening today – the same things that were going on then are still occurring now. It makes me think of Malcolm X’s 1964 speech, when he said that ‘Black people are fed up with the dillydallying,’ and that we must ‘fight until we overcome.’ And so Dane and I have been taking all of this, along with my own experiences with racism, and supercharging them into this contemporary adaptation,” says Wallace.