Regretfully, I don’t claim to have a great knowledge or understanding of the history of slavery or race relations in the US. Here in Australia we have our own variation of circumstances and a shameful history that is difficult enough to reconcile. But I’m sorry to say I don’t feel greatly enlightened on either subject after watching Underground Railway Game, rather just confronted by some perverse sexual behaviour.
Coming to us from the much-accoladed Ars Nova theatre company of New York and devised by Philadelphia’s Lighting Rod Special, this original production has toured the world following great acclaim at home. So it’s with quite a bit of promise that one sits down at the Malthouse to see this work and at the beginning the premise is also encouraging.
A couple of 5th grade teachers in Hanover, Pennsylvania have devised a surprising way to take their students through their history unit on the American Civil War. Teacher Caroline (Jennifer Kidwell) and Teacher Stuart (Scott R. Sheppard) ask us, their class, to reach under our seats and pick up envelopes placed there before the start of the show. Within each is a toy soldier of either blue or grey plastic, informing us that we are either part of the Union or Confederate armies. While we the audience never have to actually participate, they instruct us that as students we are undertaking a kind of live action role play of the Underground Railway, where the ‘Union soldiers’ have to attempt to smuggle dolls, representing slaves, from one classroom to another without being caught by the ‘Confederacy’. It’s a misjudged, if not just oversimplified way to educate children on the subject that makes for awkward laughter at least.
But it’s when our teachers subsequently begin a romance together (of the interracial variety of course) and it causes them to become the victims of student racism, that things really get out of hand. The pair’s relationship is put under a microscope and both their true feelings about race come to fore, not just in conversation but also in sadomasochistic sexual play. Basic full frontal nudity is the tip of the uncomfortable iceberg inflicted by creator/performers Kidwell and Sheppard upon their audience – and class? It’s difficult to tell what the pair of educators are doing behind closed doors and within their classroom as the scenes interflow and certainly classroom objects become part of their flagellations. The couple beautifully enact costumed scenes for their students of a runaway slave hiding in the barn of a Quaker who becomes her white ‘saviour’ – another deliberately uncomfortable narrative. Then later, they go on to present a slave who suckles her white male captor before he’s invited to enter her skirts and things get even wilder. The lines between classroom and fantasy are blurred, mostly for the purpose of making the audience as uncomfortable as possible it seems. Does it shine a greater light on the inequities still in existence in US race relations? Maybe it does, but I can’t tell.
Certainly, the play does have its moments of meaningful clarity, particularly following the afore-mentioned act of racism, as the teachers each go their own way about dealing with the situation. Who’s feeling more hurt? The person called the ‘N’ word, or the man called out for loving her? It beautifully highlights how much of a gap there is that still exists between races, even when they seem to be on the same page. More of this kind of exploration would potentially have created a less salacious structure and more eloquent message.
Nevertheless, director Taibi Magar has done a wonderful job of balancing the structure and pace of the production, so that it always remains engaging throughout the course of its approx. 70 minutes running time, even if often you’d rather be looking away. Technical aspects of the production are uniformly solid, with Oona Curley’s evocative lighting design beautifully bringing the re-enactment scenes to life, and while Steven Dufala’s scenic design looks deceptively like it has been produced on a high-school budget, it has a lot more to it than cardboard boxes alone would allow.
Despite misgivings about the methodologies used by Kidwell and Sheppard in their creation, their acting performances are nothing less than visceral, and delivered with 100% energy. Sheppard in particular allows himself to be practically eviscerated for the sake of his art, while equally showing brilliant comic timing and charm. Kidwell is also exposed physically and emotionally, delivering a beautifully nuanced and earnest performance.
Productions that make us consider and reconsider our positions on race relations are certainly topical, if not very much needed at this moment in history, so certainly Underground Railroad Game adds voice to a subject that needs to be examined more closely right now. Whether its gratuitous shock tactics really elevate the conversation is questionable.