New TV Drama Recounts Heroic Escapes On The Underground Railroad

Mar 9, 2016
Originally published on March 9, 2016 2:18 pm

Visiting the set of a historical drama can be a surreal experience, and Underground was no exception.

As the Louisiana sun beat down on an actual historical plantation near Baton Rouge last July, director Kate Woods oversaw a scene where an adorable small boy — actor Maceo Smedley — is picking cotton.

"Could someone go and put more blood on his hands?" she shouted.

The second the filming stopped, someone dashed over with an umbrella to protect the 8-year-old from the stultifying heat, while the extras playing female field workers pulled bottles of Gatorade and cellphones from their 18th-century skirts.

Underground premieres on the basic cable channel WGN America tonight. It's the first major scripted drama taking the Underground Railroad as a setting. Enslaved people in the American South journeyed hundreds of miles to freedom, assisted by abolitionists, black and white. Given the drama of the actual history, it's almost hard to believe the Underground Railroad hasn't been a setting for a TV show before. (As it happens, NBC also planned a miniseries, called Freedom Run, last year, but it didn't pan out.)

Co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski met while working as writers for the series Heroes, which ran for four seasons on NBC. It was Green's idea to draw on their shared love of comic books and action movies for a show that in some ways would be more 24 than Roots. They wanted to make it exciting and high-stakes, real and relevant.

Underground is, in the manner of Game of Thrones, a multilayered drama following different groups. Here: slave catchers, abolitionists, a plantation family in Georgia, the enslaved people forced to work there, and those who try to escape. Among them, a housemaid played by actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell. She compares Underground to spy thrillers where characters must rely on cryptic clues to make their way to freedom.

"They could use a star or they could use a song, or they could use code words or glances or markings on a tree," she says. The song "Follow the Drinking Gourd," for example, is said to contain coded messages about navigating north by using the Big Dipper.

Other TV shows have dramatized American slavery — but not many. And such shows tend to be miniseries, not regularly scheduled dramas that could air for years. The great Roots, from 1977, was a miniseries. So was BET's critically acclaimed The Book of Negroes, from 2015. (Roots is scheduled for a remake this year.) The PBS series Mercy Street, which debuted this year, is set during the Civil War.

"But slavery is folded within it and not at all its center," writes Lisa Woolfork, a professor at the University of Virginia who studies representations of American slavery.

Woolfork says she's heard complaints about "slavery fatigue" since the success of high-profile movies such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. Writers Kara Brown in Jezebel and Demetria Lucas D'Oyley in The Root both recently wrote about it. Woolfork says she wholeheartedly understands wanting to put a shameful past behind us.

"We want to have it safely away so it doesn't impede on our everyday life," Woolfork says. "But one way to understand why our present is the way it is, is rooted in the past. As Faulkner said, 'The past is never dead. It isn't even past.' "

I hadn't yet talked to Woolfork when lead actor Aldis Hodge and production designer Meghan Rogers took me to Undeground's reconstructed slave quarters outside the Rural Life Museum at Louisiana State University — another exterior set. Seven wooden shacks were arranged around a vegetable garden, all authentic slave cabins from the 1830s that had been moved from another location.

"This was creepy sometimes," Rogers admitted.

"Very creepy," Hodge agreed. "The first time on set, all of us, we didn't know where to step, we didn't know how to act, we didn't want to touch anything. You could feel the presence."

Hodge says that sense of authenticity helped when he had to play very difficult scenes as the leader of the resistance. On one of the first days of shooting, he said, his character had to beg for his life on his knees after being caught.

"Those are the hard days," he said. "It hurts, and there's no way you can come from set without taking a little piece of that with you."

Filming Underground wasn't just emotionally draining for the actors. It was physically challenging. When Rogers created the set for the abolitionists' house, she built a secret passageways and a bunker where actors playing runaways had to crouch for hours.

"We play a lot of action of people standing on top of people hiding," she said. "You could see a slave catcher standing right on top of someone."

The production designer was incredibly attentive to tiny details and nuances. For example, she designed the dresses of the plantation housemaids to nearly fade into the wallpaper of the big house, so the women are almost like furniture. And she made the color yellow a motif — the color of freedom. It's the color of a ribbon carried by a runaway, and the color of the lanterns set in the window of the abolitionists' house as a signal.

"Throughout the entire show. I had somebody putting yellow flowers all over the place when they're on their journey," Rogers said. "It's echoing the color of the lantern, the light of the lantern."

It's fair to say that nothing in Underground is sepia-toned. The music is contemporary, and so is much of the language. Co-creator Misha Green said she aimed to pull American history off the wall of the proverbial museum.

"The Underground Railroad was the first integrated civil rights movement," she said. "And it's a great example of when we work together, what we can go against. Which is 600 miles of crazy terrain being chased by slave catchers to get people to be what they should be in the first case — which is free."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk about the Underground Railroad. That's a phrase many of us learn in school. That railroad, which is a metaphor, was filled with drama and danger. Enslaved people in the American South journeyed hundreds of miles to freedom helped by abolitionists who also took great risks to help them. Now the Underground Railroad is a setting of a new TV series that debuts tonight on WGN America. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Underground" was created by two people - Misha Green, who's black, and Joe Pokaski, who's white. They met as writers for the TV show "Heroes" and discovered a mutual love of comic books and action films. They bring that sensibility says, Pokaski, to a story they feel gets skimmed-over in school.

JOE POKASKI: You know, it's arguably the most heroic story never told in American history. So we both, being comic book people, being genre people, wanted to make it as exciting as it should be.

ULABY: "Underground" is one of those multilayered dramas that follows different groups of people, like in "Game Of Thrones." Here, there are slave catchers, abolitionists, a family who owns a plantation in Georgia and the people forced to work there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character, singing). The drinking gourd...

ULABY: "Underground" is like a spy thriller, says actress Jurnee Smollet-Bell. She plays Rosalee, a housemaid who runs for freedom with characters who must rely on cryptic clues to make it North, like a gospel song that shows how to navigate by finding the Big Dipper.

JURNEE SMOLLET-BELL: They could use a star or they could use a song, or they could use code words or glances, or markings on a tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) See, the sun rises on the right, sets on the left. It means that that big spoon in the sky always points North.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Follow the drinking gourd.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Come on, boy, you just figured out a part of the map to freedom.

ULABY: This is the first really big dramatic TV series centered on American slavery since "Roots" in 1977. "Roots" was a miniseries, not a regularly-scheduled show, and it's being remade this year. Lisa Woolfork is a University of Virginia professor who studies representations of American slavery. She's heard people complain about slavery fatigue since movies like "12 Years A Slave," and she understands wanting to put the past safely behind.

LISA WOOLFORK: But one way to understand why our present is the way that it is is rooted in the past. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead. It isn't even past.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Look what you've done.

ULABY: Woolfork points to one scary scene in "Underground" where an 8-year-old child accidentally damages the belongings of an overseer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You got 'em all dirty. Them things worth more than your life, boy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Mr. Bill?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Get your hands out. Pull them out.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Mr. Bill?

ULABY: The overseer wants to whip the little boy's hands. His adult sister offers to take the beating instead.

WOOLFORK: And I found that incredibly powerful because what it suggested to me was the interchangeability of slaves in this system.

ULABY: A system based on white supremacy and indifference to black pain.

WOOLFORK: And it helps to start thinking about what black life is, what black life means, how black life was valued.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) That's enough. She's going to need those hands to serve at the party tonight.

ULABY: Too often, Woolfork says, we tell ourselves stories today imagining our relationship to slavery.

WOOLFORK: If I lived in that time, I would not be a slave, and that I would not hold any slaves, I would certainly help slaves.

ULABY: But one of the things Woolfork liked about the TV show "Underground" is how it exposes the difficulties of resisting such a deeply entrenched system and the bravery of those who managed to, and she was impressed by its production values.

KATE WOODS: Can somebody go and put a bit more blood on his hands?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.

WOODS: And a lot of sweat.

ULABY: On the "Underground" set in Louisiana last July, everyone was really sweaty. In stultifying summer heat, director Kate Woods filmed a scene in which that 8-year-old, in a brown gingham shirt, picks cotton outside a real historical plantation.

WOODS: Is he nice and sweaty?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: They sweated him up.

WOODS: OK, good.

ULABY: As part of preparing for the show, some of the cast learned how to pick cotton for real.

ALDIS HODGE: Yeah, good old cotton. (Laughter).

ULABY: Actor Aldis Hodge.

HODGE: It makes you think differently when you put on a pair of jeans, I'll tell you that much.

ULABY: Hodge plays the leader of "Underground's" resistance. He's lean and intense with burning brown eyes. We're outside the Rural Life Museum at Louisiana State University where production designer Meghan Rogers has arranged seven wooden shacks around a humble vegetable garden. It's home to the enslaved characters on the show.

MEGHAN ROGERS: This is all real.

ULABY: These shacks were actual slave quarters built in the 1830s.

ROGERS: This is creepy sometimes.

HODGE: Very creepy the first time we stepped on set. All of us were like, we don't know where to step. We don't know how to act. We don't want to touch anything. No, you could feel the presence.

ULABY: That authenticity helped Hodge, he says, playing scenes like when his character is caught.

HODGE: I think it was, like, my first day of shooting where I was begging for my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You wasn't lost.

HODGE: (As Noah) I was.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You made that trip six times now.

HODGE: (As Noah) And I always come back. I always come back, master. I always come back.

Those are the days you sit alone and quiet for a long time. They are the hard days. It hurts. And there's no way that you can come from set without taking a little piece of that with you.

ULABY: Filming "Underground" was emotionally draining and physically challenging. For the abolitionists' house, production designer Meghan Rogers built a secret bunker where actors had to crouch for hours.

ROGERS: We play a lot of action of people standing on top of people hiding.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) This tunnel will allow your cargo to enter the house when it's safe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) About how long should we be expecting to harbor runways at a time?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Cargo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Right. Cargo.

ULABY: With a historical drama so dramatic, you might not think about the tiny nuances in details Rogers attended to. She designed the dresses of the plantation housemaids to nearly fade into the wallpaper of the big house so the women are almost like furniture. And Rogers made the color yellow a motif - the color of freedom. It's the color of the lantern set in the window of the abolitionists' house. Yellow pops up constantly.

ROGERS: Throughout the entire show, I have somebody who's putting yellow flowers all over the place when they're on their journey. It's echoing the color of the lantern, the light of the lantern.

ULABY: Nothing about "Underground" is sepia-colored. The show's co-creator, Misha Green, says she wanted to tear history off the walls of the proverbial museum and make it urgent and fresh.

MISHA GREEN: You know, the Underground Railroad was the first integrated civil rights movement, and I think it's a great example of what - when we all work together, the odds we can go against which is 600 miles of crazy terrain, being chased by slave catchers, to get people to be what they should be in the first place, which is free.

ULABY: Green and her co-creator, Joe Pokaski, wanted to challenge how we tell the story of American slavery and the people who struggled against it.

POKASKI: And I don't think we necessarily have framed runaway slaves as American heroes, but when you break it down, the idea of someone who's told they belong to someone else but they refuse to believe it and decide to run 600 miles to take their freedom back, we should be living in a culture that embraces that wholeheartedly.

ULABY: In a country still unresolved and ashamed in its accounting of slavery, Green and Pokaski want to find new ways to connect history to audiences who can then, emboldened, move forward. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.