Theater

Humor’s Hard Truths

Underground Railroad Game casts contemporary American racial politics into stark relief

by

Sheppard (left) and Kidwell (right) play with America’s racial history.
Sheppard (left) and Kidwell (right) play with America’s racial history.

Last fall, an educational game shocked and enthralled New York audiences. Or — to be more exact — a theater piece based on a game, one once played in some fifth-grade classrooms to learn about the history of slavery. Who knew a hokey classroom exercise could speak so deeply to the present day?

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, as it turns out. The pair co-created and performed Underground Railroad Game, an intelligent, disturbingly hilarious two-hander that confronts racial prejudice and violence through pointed humor, riffing on the rules of a classroom game Sheppard played as a child. Under Taibi Magar’s direction, the piece enjoyed a sold-out run at Ars Nova, the midtown institution known for developing innovative, genre-defying new work like Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. Now it’s taken home a 2017 Obie for Best New American Theater Work.

Why has the piece moved audiences so deeply? “Humor resonates with people,” says Kidwell. “I think what humor really does is point out the truth — and allows a release in the face of it — but we also have to address the truth. Those two things coming together opens people up.”

Sheppard agrees. Underground Railroad Game, he says, “deals with issues that are scary and poignant, but in a way that’s not alienating — nor does it make people pat themselves on the back.”

Kidwell and Sheppard originally developed Underground Railroad Game in Philadelphia, with their theater company, Lightning Rod Special. The piece premiered at Philadelphia’s FringeArts in 2015, before moving to Ars Nova for its New York premiere in September 2016, where its run extended from one month to two. Soon, Kidwell and Sheppard will take it on the road, playing at the international Theater der Welt Festival in Hamburg, Germany, this June, and at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 2018.

In Underground Railroad Game, Sheppard and Kidwell play teachers, treating spectators as if we were kids in their class. (Though you won’t actually “play,” they’ll address you so convincingly that it’ll feel as if you had.) You’ll begin by reaching under your seat to grab a tiny toy soldier. If it’s blue, congratulations — you’ve been conscripted into the Union Army. If it’s gray, perfect your rebel yell — you’re a Confederate. Teacher Caroline (Kidwell, who is black) leads the young members of the Union Army, who must transport “runaway slaves” (dolls in historical costume) from one classroom “safehouse” to another. The more slaves they transport, the more points they score. Meanwhile, Teacher Stuart (Sheppard, who is white) leads the Confederates, who attempt to intercept the dolls and send them back to slavery. It’s funny, but also upsetting: While the game casts the soldiers as people, the escaping slaves remain inanimate objects with no agency over their fates.

As the piece unfolds, teachers Caroline and Stuart embark on a fraught romance outside school, together unearthing their racial fantasies and preconceptions with perverse glee. First, they’re just chatting — out for a movie and a night on the town. Then they’re flirting. Then they’re mixing flirtation with aggression in a way that might leave you wondering whether they’re joking (in poorer and poorer taste) or expressing deeply held but rarely stated assumptions about interracial dating. “I wonder what you’ll look like in the dark? Like, will you just be my own personal night light?” muses Caroline. Stuart replies: “You’re talking, but sometimes it’s hard to listen because all I see is teeth!” (If dialogue like this seems provocative, wait till you get to the scene where Teacher Stuart jerks off into a Confederate flag.)

Both characters revel in, and express shame over, the ideas about race that bubble to the surface as soon as their politeness wears off. But it quickly becomes clear that — as a black woman and a white man — their imaginations can’t equally wield power out in the “real world.” In a classroom scene that unfolds after racist graffiti is discovered on one of the “safehouses,” Stuart can’t stop talking over Caroline. Caroline sure notices. Does Stuart?

Though Underground Railroad Game’s New York run is over (for now), the project clearly has a future, including on the international stage. During the play’s run in Germany this summer, Sheppard observes, the silly, amped-up classroom role-playing may take on an “anthropological element.” He notes, “All the things we do around the school are throwbacks for Americans, but to a German audience it’ll be like — whoa, they really do this!”

And an international audience, the creators point out, will likely also look to the piece as a comment on contemporary American racial politics. “All eyes are on America right now,” Sheppard says. “Whether we want it or not, people are going to be drawing lines between this piece and everything that’s going on right now.”

Underground Railroad Game is designed to be the first installment in an ongoing series. This winter, Kidwell and Sheppard traveled to New Orleans to research, among other topics, mass incarceration and the history of Mardi Gras. Both will feature as elements in their second piece, which, Kidwell, says, is about “the criminalization of the black body.” Like Underground Railroad Game, the new project will draw on history but comment directly on the present day, in particular the economic dimensions of mass incarceration, and how the prison-industrial complex reflects injustice in our economy as a whole.

The systemic injustice of the prison system, Kidwell says, “doesn’t start with an economic imperative — it actually begins with the way that we don’t value lives in the same way. We couldn’t even have this economic system if we were all looking at each other as people.”

Even as its creators turn their attention to developing new work, Underground Railroad Game continues to grow and shift in their eyes. “I think it went from being safely edgy, and it’s gotten more and more dangerous,” says Kidwell. “It has sharpened over time in a way that’s exciting.”

Sheppard observes that the piece itself contains a changing perspective on racial politics, evolving in complexity from the beginning to the end. “Early in the play it’s fun and clever and theatrical,” he says, “and by the end it becomes more complicated. We come with open hearts and open arms to the material, and we don’t come with any answers.”