by Gregory Forrest
The New York Times listed Jennifer Kidwel and Scott R Sheppard’s razor-sharp comedy
as one of the 25 best plays since Angels in America. Like a role-play game that gets
completely out of hand, it’s easy to see why.
Underground Railroad Game was inspired by a game that Sheppard actually played at
school. Teacher Caroline – black, female – and Teacher Stuart – white, male – split their
class into warring Union and Confederate armies. The former is responsible for smuggling slave doll babies between safehouse cardboard boxes in several classrooms, while the latter must capture any runaway slaves hiding in book bags and lunch boxes.
This is a play about conflict. And like any good play, it tackles its central topic from a
number of different angles. The American Civil War becomes a fertile metaphor for all
kinds of oppositions: a battle of the sexes; racial conflict; sadomasochism; past versus
present; teacher versus student, etc. The ideas are really packed in here.
Particular praise should go to Steven Dufala’s scenic design and Oona Curley’s lighting for making full use of contrast and dichotomy: light and shadow; tall and short; on and off stage; dressed and, er, undressed. They help to conjure some of the most arresting
visuals I have seen in modern theatre.
In one standout scene, the two teachers stroll home after a movie, trading insults as a kind of weird flirtation. It’s reminiscent of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and reasserts that racial humour can be a kind of theatrical dynamite. This scene, and ultimately the play itself, points out that language and labels are not straw men in any discussion about race. After all, they are the very means by which discussion exists. And sure, policing micro-aggressions can be annoying in the real world, but what’s made clear by the audience’s gasps and laughter is that these linguistic acts of damage are not only real, but readily identifiable. We all increasingly know the potential danger of speaking. Yet rather than using this to silence debate, Underground Railroad Game shouts at the top of its lungs. And rather than ignoring the ugly truths of our daily dialogues, Underground Railroad Game strips this verbal battle to its basics, exposing words in all their painful, small, and pernicious glory. As teacher Caroline observes: “Those words don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to you.”
It’s easy to learn about history. Read a book. Watch a documentary. Maybe even play a
game. But how do we learn from history? How do we atone for the mistakes of the past
and avoid repeating them? This kind of education requires the learner to take an active
role in tackling history and, as Underground Railroad Game attests to, this is an incredibly difficult, painful process. But is it really more painful than slavery?
Sublimely silly, upsetting, radical, and dark, Underground Railroad Game is a modern masterpiece.
Underground Railroad Game runs through 13 October.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.