From the first two words of the title, we can surmise that it has something to do with slavery, but what does the word ‘game’ imply? There’s nothing in the blurb that gives you a real clue as to what you’re about mind-warping take on race relations you are about to experience.
As it turns out, the 75-minute piece was inspired by an episode of immersive learning, a game that reads as mortifying in retrospect, that Sheppard experienced when he was in the 5th grade at Hanover Middle School in Pennsylvania, near to Gettysburg and the Mason-Dixon line.
Students were divided into two groups representing the opposing sides of the Civil War. The Union side got points for smuggling slaves (represented by dolls) through the titular Underground Railroad, to freedom. The Confederate side got points for capturing those slaves.
Since “We learn about history by living history”, the detail of this teaching model – including realistic school bell and jolly-voiced instructors – is replicated by Sheppard’s Teacher Stuart, who is white, and Kidwell’s Teacher Caroline, who is black. The audience represents the competing pupils in a brilliant conceit that cleverly ensures the it becomes part of the action confronting taboo subjects and historical distortion at the intersection of race, sex and power.
The audience becomes queasily complicit voyeurs in the deeply unsettling, racially charged, sexually deviant way that lines are ferociously blurred between reality and representation and between performer and performance. Looking around the auditorium in Soho Theatre in this instance, it’s interesting to note that the 140-strong audience is more racially diverse than the majority of theatre audiences in London.
This adds a deeper layer to the meaning of what is playing out on stage and heightens how much the audience feels – just as much vulnerability, exposure, shame and humiliation as the corresponding full-frontal nudity of the performers in scenes of sadomasochistic cruelty suggest. As Teacher Caroline says at one point, “This isn’t poetry class – this is sex detention.”
The show, directed with shrewd efficiency by Taibi Magar, opens with a play within a play. Kidwell is an escaping slave while Sheppard is a smugly worthy white abolitionist Quaker, one of the underground network aiding slaves to safety in Canada. It soon takes on a hokey-cokey, melodramatic tone that seems at odds with the subject matter. That’s because this is just a disarming lure into the real eviscerating point of the piece.
As Caroline and Stuart begin an intimate relationship, things transmogrify into a blundering, cringe-inducing courtship that twists historical and romantic tropes into racially charged tableaux, courtesy of Tilly Grimes‘ ingenious production design, depicting the fantasy, brutality and shame of slavery. It provides a direct line from the body of a black female slave on the auction block to the body of a white male put on a pedestal for punishment.
It becomes clear that in the 150 years since the abolition of slavery, Americans still haven’t found the right words to address the bitterness and guilt that history has engendered. Slavery is very personal to Caroline, but is more like a historical concept to Stuart. This makes for massive blind spots in how he relates to Caroline, despite his liberal views, and provides a complicated framework for the humour that explodes like grenades when audience least expects it.
The whole production strikes the right, if disturbing, note, but special kudos has to go to the co-creators and performers. Kidwell and Sheppard’s fearlessness and courage is startling and really worthy of admiration for not only creating such a striking and impactful piece of theatre, but also for the utter and passionate commitment to taking the performance to places other productions fear to venture.
Underground Railroad Game, which was named one of the “25 Best American Plays Since Angels in America” by The New York Times, is in-your-face, funny, poignant, carnal, provocative, and like nothing you’ve ever seen on stage.
It doesn’t allow the audience to tiptoe around a dialogue about race, and it will have you parsing its lessons and recalibrating your stance on its themes long after you’ve finished watching it. It’s a thrilling piece of theatre that will have you squirming in your seat and unlikely to forget it in a hurry.
Photo credit: Aly Wight