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Hillary Atkin

What a TV Series Set 160 Years Ago Says About Today’s America

Mar 8, 2017

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, is certainly having a moment — notwithstanding President Trump’s recent comment about him that many interpreted as the president thinking Douglass was still alive.

Ten-time Grammy Award-winning musician John Legend will portray the African-American social reformer in WGN America’s “Underground,” the historical drama series on which Legend is one of the executive producers.

That’s just one of the highlights — including a new song by Legend — that viewers can look forward to as the show begins its second 10-episode season, set in a divided America on the brink of the Civil War.

Another iconic abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, plays a much larger role than Douglass as the tale of Southern plantation slaves plotting their unremitting quests for freedom from degrading captivity via the Underground Railroad continues on the cable network.

Last season’s run of the series, created, written and executive produced by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, drew the highest ratings ever for an original scripted series on WGN America and has helped forge its newfound identity as a home for quality drama.

“Whenever as a network you have a show that resonates so strongly with its audience, it is tremendously gratifying, as it reinforces your confidence in the direction of the network as well as brings in new audiences from which to grow,” said Matt Cherniss, President and GM, WGN America and Tribune Studios, in an email interview. “Misha and Joe do a spectacular job of walking the fine line between telling an entertaining story and staying true to the time and place without making the show feel like a history lesson. In their sure hands, experiencing specific moments in history as well as key figures, like Harriet Tubman, feels both organic and revelatory.”

In development of the character of Tubman and how she is portrayed, Pokaski and Green experienced a deeper understanding of one of the most fascinating women in American history.

“When tackling writing such an iconic woman, we did our research. We read anything and everything we could get our hands on. We needed to find the woman behind the myth, and what we ending up finding is that this woman is pretty damn mythical,” Green said via email. “And Aisha Hinds rose to the occasion. From the minute she finished her audition, we knew she was our Harriet. There is a strength and a vulnerability that she plays simultaneously. It helps us see that this icon named Harriet started off as a young girl named Minty who decides she deserved to be free.”

Immersing themselves in history means the past is never far from the present for Cherniss, Green and all those involved in the show. “Underground” marked the debut of its second season with a screening and panel discussion two weeks ago during Black History Month at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It was a repeat engagement, of sorts. Last September, soon after the museum opened, “Underground” had been the first public program to be screened there.

“It is such an honor and so humbling to be used as a vessel to tell this story,” Jurnee Smollett-Bell said during the Feb. 22 discussion with NMAAHC’s associate curatorial director, Dr. Rex Ellis. “To be a part of telling a story of those who did resist, those who did rise up, those who were agents of change. This is stuff you dream of as an artist. It does not come every single day. I feel like we are all doing our best work because we are called to do this. We are walking in our purpose every single day when we come to work. As an artist, it’s a dream.”

Aldis Hodge, who stars as escaped slave Noah in the series, also feels the weight of history on his shoulders.

“This is the kind of job that helps you understand your responsibility. This is not about us,” he said at the D.C. panel. “It’s a gift and an honor to be in this position, and to be on a show like this, in this particular day and age, because it is by no mistake that this show is on right now. It makes me realize as an individual, the power of influence, the power of our platform as artists, and what we need to continue to do. How responsible we need to be with the choices that we make and how we represent ourselves. Because we are now representing real royalty, so we must carry ourselves as such.”

The cast and crew also visited the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing to celebrate plans to feature Ms. Tubman on the $20 bill, the first African-American to be featured on American currency — and the first woman in more than a century. They met with Rosie Rios, 43rd Treasurer of the United States, whose leadership was instrumental in the decision to depict the famed abolitionist and former slave. (President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, moves to the back of the bill.)

And in Los Angeles on February 28, the first episode of the new season was screened at the historic Regency Village Theatre (built in 1931 and formerly known as the Fox Theater in Westwood), after a rousing gospel performance by Jason McGee and the Choir.

In addition to Smollett-Bell and Hodge, the key cast including Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller, Jessica de Gouw, Marc Blucas and Amirah Vann returns in Season 2, with Aisha Hinds portraying Tubman, who in the 1850s led hundreds of slaves to freedom.

“You can’t tell the story of the Underground without telling the story of Harriet Tubman,” Green said. “In season one, we wanted to start with fictional characters, take the journey with them, and fall in love with them without the baggage that comes with historical figures. But we always knew we wanted to end with Rosalee linking up with Harriet, and in season two expand our understanding of the Underground as a movement and network through her, as well as William Still and Frederick Douglass.”

Viewers will first see Tubman toting a rifle and holding off a bounty hunter trying to capture an escaped slave. Right by her side, also armed, is Smollett-Bell’s character Rosalee.

Last season, “Underground” followed the fates of Rosalee and six male slaves, known as the Macon 7, as they escaped their bondage at a Georgia plantation. Yet one of them, Noah, is behind bars, the result of sacrificing his own freedom for the good of the others.

“He finds himself still in chains at the beginning of season two, and that’s something he will struggle with, both physically and metaphorically,” said Green. “Living ‘free’ in the North isn’t as simple as he thought it would be, and he’s struggling with the price of being a hero.”

This season, there is a heavy emphasis on the storylines of the female characters, including de Gouw’s abolitionist Elizabeth Hawkes and Vann’s Ernestine, Rosalee’s mother, who was left behind on the plantation after her daughter escaped.

“Rosalee, Elizabeth and Ernestine are all grappling with major changes in their life,” said Green. “Rosalee is learning from Harriet how to be a conductor on the Underground, Elizabeth is thrust deeper into the movement through the Sewing Circle, and Ernestine is on a new plantation with new rules. They’re all going to face challenges that we hope are relevant to the struggles women are still facing today.”

One of the elements that sets “Underground” apart from other historic dramas is its usage of contemporary music by the likes of Legend, Kanye West, X Ambassadors and The Weeknd as an integral part of telling the story, and this season continues incorporating current compositions, including Legend’s new song, “In America.” Composers Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq do the work to make it all feel seamless.

Guest stars on “Underground,” produced by Sony Pictures Television, include Jasika Nicole, DeWanda Wise, Bokeem Woodbine, Michael Trotter, Jesse Luken and Sadie Stratton.

In addition to Legend, Akiva Goldsman, Tory Tunnell, Joby Harold, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius and Anthony Hemingway executive produce, and Hemingway directed five of the new season’s episodes.

Although the events depicted in “Underground” happened nearly 160 years ago, their resonance runs deep in today’s current political climate.

“I think it’s important for the audience to draw their own conclusions as to which elements of the show directly relate to our world today,” Cherniss said. “I will say that we as a network couldn’t be prouder to be airing this show and be part of the ongoing dialogue about our country’s past, present and future.”

(The Season 2 premiere of “Underground” airs Wednesday, March 8, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.)

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