Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard are the co-creators of Underground Railroad Game, currently playing at Ars Nova: a hilarious, brutal, multilayered meditation on slavery and racial prejudice, structured around an elementary-school role-playing exercise of the same name. Kidwell, who is black, and Sheppard, who is white, play teachers, addressing audience members as if we were the students conscripted into the game. Over the course of the show the teachers develop a sexual relationship, replete with dangerous power-play, that reveals the unexamined prejudices haunting American racial dialogue today. In an alternate theatrical reality, the two enact “historical” scenes of fantasy: melodramatic, bosom-heaving encounters, set in an Underground Railroad safe house, between a black woman fleeing slavery and a white man.
The piece has inspired tremendous enthusiasm, extending its run twice, and the creators answered the Voice‘s questions about the making of the piece and the responses to it.
The piece was inspired by a real game that Scott played in fifth grade. How much of the Underground Railroad Game presented onstage is true to your memory of it?
Sheppard: It’s pretty much as it was played. In each classroom there was a “safe house,” with two black dolls. Students were divided into Union and Confederate soldiers, and the Union soldiers had to move the slaves around. There were display cases in the hallway for slaves that were captured, and for slaves that were “freed” and escorted to Canada.
How did the piece evolve from that original concept?
Kidwell: We met at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. Scott was going to do the piece as a solo, but we’d been assigned to create a duet and started trying to turn this into a two-person thing. We went to a talk where this park ranger was giving a talk about the Underground Railroad. He was very knowledgeable; however, he was having a lot of difficulty, because every time he came to talk about black people, he kept stumbling over the words. It was crazy: How do you give a talk about the Underground Railroad if you can’t actually talk about slavery?
Sheppard: We were interested in the play between a person who is teaching something and the ways in which they’re oblivious to important things: teachers who “had all the facts right” but were completely missing the point.
The romantic and sexual relationship between the teachers is one of the most striking elements of the piece. How did that come about?
Kidwell: We talked about how history gets romanticized, and actually gets fetishized. The way we tell the story of history propagates that fetishization. I read a book of love stories from the Underground Railroad. It was interesting, but it was also so overly hopeful. I’m not sure what we get out of those stories, except to humanize people. But let’s not forget the brutality and utter dehumanization inherent in these systems.
Is it productive to make audience members uncomfortable?
Kidwell: I think our show is uncomfortable, and there’s a lot of subjectivity around what part makes people uncomfortable. Ultimately, can we unseat people from a point of view that they feel safe in having? Like, I feel comfortable saying that I think the system of slavery is wrong, and a lot of people feel comfortable saying that. But we’re still existing in a society that is grappling every moment with the vestiges of that system, so what about all the other ills connected to that system that don’t get addressed? It’s not about shaming people, but if we literally have to squirm in our seat, then the movement is happening.
Has the audience response surprised you?
Sheppard: We built the show to be surprising. Sometimes it feels like a laugh riot, and we’re aware that we might have to play one part differently so that we land the other punches. We cast the audience as the third character. Their laughter, their gasps, those things all serve as the third actor in the room.
Is the piece a comedy?
Kidwell: For me, it’s pure comedy. In pure comedy, there’s such a thin line between comedy and tragedy — maybe there is no line. It’s funny in a really excruciating, devastating way, in a way that not everybody wants to have access to, actually.
Is the piece, in the end, pessimistic about racial justice in America?
Kidwell: I wouldn’t say pessimistic, because I don’t think the piece is forecasting anything. I think it’s our reflection on how things are. It doesn’t necessarily feel good, but racialized situations in this country feel pretty terrible and always have.
Sheppard: The final lines of the play happen through puppets, so you hear lots of “aw, how cute.” But that’s a tool you use to tell stories to children. So there’s a complicating factor: The only history we’re able to do, successfully, is telling adorable, reduced versions of history to children. Children’s stories.
Underground Railroad Game
Created by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard
511 West 54th Street
Through November 11