Everything is exactly what it seems in Underground Railroad Game. Last Thursday, the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance showcased Ars Nova’s two-person play directed by Taibi Magar and starring Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard. The play takes us into a sixth grade classroom at Hanover Middle School in Pennsylvania, with Kidwell and Sheppard playing two teachers, Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart, respectively.
The stage is depicted as the front part of the classroom, making the auditorium the rest of the room and transforming the audience members unknowingly into sixth graders. The stage is physically framed by two flags, that of the Confederacy and that of the Union. Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart introduce a game that the class will play for several days to learn about the Underground Railroad as part of its Civil War history unit. The students are split into teams of Union and Confederate soldiers, with the Union team tasked with transporting dolls that represent “slaves” around the school, representing “traveling through the Underground Railroad” to reach a final classroom standing in for “Canada.” If the Union is able to transport all the puppets, that team wins, and if not, the Confederacy does.
What initially appears to be a spoof on a daft and dense version of a Magic School Bus episode becomes a lot darker very quickly. The classroom narrative constantly shifts between a romanticized take on the historic Underground Railroad – where Kidwell acts as a runaway slave and Sheppard as a Quaker who offers to help her reach Pennsylvania – and scenes of the very intimate relationship between Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart that is based on explicit racial stereotypes and exoticizations. The play shifts back and forth from these realities seamlessly and without warning, giving it an extremely surrealist quality. Any sense of normalcy surrounding these two teachers is completely destroyed when their most secret and destructive subconscious ideas on race, misogyny and sexuality rise to the surface.
Clearly, the play aims to destroy the idea of the “good white” or the “white savior” by showing how Sheppard’s character, a “good white,” still very much carries the same privilege, bias and even hatred that a “not good white” does. Sheppard invests himself, and even his own body, into his character to a great degree to create a very visible emotional journey; it becomes harder, however, to track how Kidwell’s character transforms. All of the characters Kidwell plays, which she does with an incredible amount of talent, seem to be, in one way or another, reactions to those Sheppard plays.
Some of the audience members who stayed after the play to hear from the actors questioned whether the intended audience of the play includes those that are not the well-meaning white audience members Sheppard’s character ridicules. Kidwell responded with her belief that the show is intended for all audiences and that as long as the play causes some sort of reaction, it has succeeded.
But how does Underground Railroad Game attempt to create an intense reaction in an audience that has, presumably, had experience discussing the impacts of slavery? Kidwell and Sheppard use humor that is not just bizarre, but intentionally offensive, to draw out the hidden anti-blackness biases of the audience. Although, again, the question remains: What if an audience member is black? The actors failed to provide a response to this. The jokes gradually become less controlled and descend into a form of anarchy that initially seems to have no purpose.
But that is when the two teachers ask themselves whether what they are doing is reflecting on history or reveling in it, thus adding another distinct layer of self-awareness to the piece. There seems to be no answer to this question, but Underground Railroad Game still features a great level of artistic and technical talent in posing this question to the audience. The barriers between audience and actor – and between shock and reality – are erased.
The script jokes with itself constantly that there might be no distinct reflective value to this entire work, that it might be just a failed attempt to provide another dimension to the conversation of racial politics in America; for some audience members, this lasting sense of nihilism might be a satisfactory conclusion. For the rest of us that very much have to live within the reality of racialized America outside the theatre, though, Underground Railroad Game leaves a certain something to be desired.