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A CurtainUp Review
Underground Railroad Game
By Charles Wright
Underground Railroad Game, a provocative theater piece by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, has arrived at a turbulent juncture in relations among this country's varied communities, especially black and white. Like Colson Whitehead's insightful novel The Underground Railroad (currently third on the New York Times list of best-selling hardcover fiction), Kidwell and Sheppard's play depicts injustice and pain (both physical and emotional) endured by those trafficked long ago from Africa to North America in order to consider the ongoing effects of slavery and its jim crow aftermath.
Developed by Kidwell and Sheppard with the Philadelphia Theater Company Lightning Rod Special, Underground Railroad Game is not so much a drama as a series of related sketches. Passages of dialogue are interspersed with song, dance, and sundry surprises, making the evening akin to vaudeville. In light of considerable on-stage nudity, it's tempting to jest that the show is more "burlesque" than "vaudeville." The nudity here, however, is anything but gratuitous (or even erotic).
Underground Railroad Game was inspired by the fifth grade history curriculum at Sheppard's elementary school in Hanover, Pennsylvania. In a semester devoted to the Civil War, Sheppard and his classmates were assigned to Union and Confederate teams for what was supposed to be an edifying competition. The Yankee team attempted to smuggle dolls representing slaves from one classroom (or "safe house") to another while the Rebels did their best to thwart the slaves' progress. The goal was to get the dolls to Canada, which was represented by a prominent display case in the school's lobby.
In Underground Railroad Game, Kidwell and Sheppard are Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart, faculty members of a junior high school in Hanover (which, besides being Sheppard's home town, is just north of the Mason-Dixon Line and was a stop on the Underground Railroad). Caroline is black; Stuart is white. The theater is their classroom, the audience their history class.
The evening begins on a light note with the writer/performers impersonating amateur thespians blundering through a mindless script about a runaway slave and a Quaker farmer guiding her northward. At the end of the scene, the two hams doff their period head gear, revealing themselves to be the teachers, and introduce the rules of the history game to the assembled students.
Like an evening of classic vaudeville, Underground Railroad Game is a magpie collection of dramatic and musical odds and ends, with constant changes in style and tone. It's superficially interactive, but playgoers averse to actors breaching the fourth wall may take heart. Sheppard and Kidwell address the audience without singling out individuals or engaging in physical contact with anyone; and all the spectators remain in their seats throughout the show.
The script follows Caroline and Stuart into the after-school, grown-up world, where their casual socializing turns to dating. While the classroom scenes are sketch comedy, the teachers' romance is portrayed in movie pastiche — first, Hollywood musicals, then "rom-com" and, later, porn.
The actors play sexual attraction with a light touch, but the script is uncompromising in its depiction of fantasies and prejudices that underlie the white man's attraction to a woman of color and her attraction to him. Acting out their dreams and yearnings, each strips the other of garments, pretenses and, ultimately, dignity. As the sex play intensifies, their good manners, middle-class liberality, and commitment to what's politically correct vanish, making way for expression of individual proclivities, unconscious urges, and prejudices that are ordinarily suppressed.
Director Taibi Magar keeps the actors moving at high velocity through the script's vibrant absurdism. The relentless speed is a life saver when, late in the play, the action plunges into a narrative cauldron so dark and deep that, despite a powerful sadomasochistic climax, the writer/performers are hard-pressed to achieve a dramatically satisfying conclusion. But with issues as thorny and urgent as those addressed in Underground Railroad Game, it's hardly reasonable to ask for a denouement that's satisfying in any traditional sense of the word.
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Underground Railroad Game
Created by Jennifer Kidwell & Scott Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special
Directed by Taibi Magar Cast: Jennifer Kidwell (Teacher Caroline); Scott Sheppard (Teacher Stuart)
Production Design: Tilly Grimes
Scenic Design: Steven Dufala
Lighting Design: Oona Curley
Sound Design: Mikaal Sulaiman
Production Stage Manager: Lisa McGinn
Monday to Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday to Saturday at 8 pm
At Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street
From 9/13/16; opened 9/26/16; after several extensions closing 11/11/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at press performance on September 23, 2016.
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