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Underground Railroad Game creators: ‘We’re tackling the safe narrative we’ve been spoonfed about race’

Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game. Photo: Ben Arons Photography

One of the more eyebrow-raising shows at the Edinburgh Fringe plays out a controversial game in which American schoolchildren re-enact the Civil War-era ‘rescue’ of black slaves from the South. Creators Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard tell Tim Bano how it addresses deep-rooted taboos and has taken on renewed urgency in today’s divided US


Theatremakers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard want us to play a game. It’s a game about the Underground Railroad, the secret routes used by slaves to escape to freedom in 19th-century America. That may not sound entirely appropriate. But it is the launching point for a discomfiting comedy that started life five years ago, and blew US audiences away. The New York Times has since named it among the 25 greatest American plays of the past 25 years.

Sheppard and Kidwell want to open up questions about the language of race, how countries falsify the narrative of their racist past, and how racism persists – widely and insidiously – in the US today. To do that, they started with an episode from Sheppard’s childhood.

Before the American Civil War, the country was split by an imaginary border called the Mason-Dixon Line, running east to west, which marked the division between states in the north that had outlawed slavery, and the south where it remained legal.

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard in Underground Railroad Game. Photo: Ben Arons Photography

Sheppard grew up in Pennsylvania, just north of Mason-Dixon, an area steeped in its grim past. “There are re-enactments, and battlefield tourism,” he says. “They keep the fields as close as they can to their original state. There’s a romanticism around the Civil War.”

But Sheppard’s middle school took the obsession one step further. His white teachers created a role-playing game in which students were split into Southern Confederates and Northern Unionists. The Unionists were charged with the task of ferrying black ragdolls, made to look like enslaved people, to freedom in the north while the Confederate students had to capture them.

The point, Sheppard suggests, was to get bored students interested in the past, “to put a positive twist of a really horrifying period of American history. But the values system behind that game is nonexistent”.

For a few years he didn’t really think about the game. In the meantime he grew up, got a degree in literature and creative writing, and began creating and performing his own work.

While Sheppard was playing the Underground Railroad Game at school, Kidwell was playing the violin. She’d always loved performing and showing off, but started developing stage fright and eventually gave up the instrument, focusing instead on law, convinced a legal career lay ahead of her. Yet, despite her dread of performing and her insistence that “I don’t want people looking at me”, she ended up studying voice and acting at a liberal arts school in New York. “I guess I just sort of slid into a deep love of creation and expression and questioning.”

Then in 2011 they both enrolled in the newly created postgraduate performance programme at the prestigious Pig Iron Theatre Company, focusing on Jacques Lecoq school-inspired ensemble work, and there they met.

Their dance teacher had put them together to create a duet, and everyone thought the pairing was a bit odd. “We hadn’t worked together much up until that point and are very different makers,” Kidwell recalls. “Even the head of the programme thought it was strange.”

Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game. Photo: Ben Arons Photography

But during their collaboration, Sheppard told Kidwell the story of the Underground Railroad Game and, for both of them, it became the catalyst for an award-winning piece of theatre.

Kidwell says: “I imagine it’s like lab science: we started with a sort of inarticulate feeling that the game Scott played was wrong and harmful and indicative of systemic harms. And we tried our hardest to prove that hypothesis.”

In the show, the audience members are ostensibly cast as students and invited to play the Underground Railroad Game. Meanwhile the two performers, playing two middle school teachers, develop an intense relationship in front of their students, beginning with a scene in which Kidwell plays a runaway slave who is ‘saved’ by abolitionist Quaker Sheppard.

Kidwell says it moves from “the static, safe narrative that we’re constantly being spoonfed about race”. She puts on a deep voice like she’s narrating a movie trailer: “ ‘In a dangerous world where brother fights brother, one white man will save a black woman…’ What actually might be the impetus for this desire to ‘save’ someone in this way? And what might be beneath the response of being ‘the saved’?”

Continues…


CV: Jennifer Kidwell

Born: 1978, Baltimore
Training: Chautauqua Conservatory Training Company (1999); BA, Columbia University, (2000); The Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab (2005); Pig Iron School (2013)
Landmark productions:
• Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter, Peak Performances (2013)

• I Understand Everything Better, Advanced Beginner Group (2015)
• Underground Railroad Game, Ars Nova, New York (2016)
• Home, Geoff Sobelle (2018)
Awards: OBIE award for best new American theatre work for Underground Railroad Game (2017)
Agent: None


Q&A

What was your first non-theatre job?
Mamma Ilardo’s pizza in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

What was your first professional theatre job?
A gig with Philip Hamilton at St Marks in the East Village. It was a night of his original music with choreography by Ron Brown.

Who are your biggest influences?
Serena Williams, Janelle Monae, Stevie Wonder, Kara Walker, Young Jean Lee, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Mimi Lien, Hank Willis Thomas, Erykah Badu, Andre 3000, Betty Davis, Chris Myers, Dan Graham and John Waters.

If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been?
A lawyer.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I do a funny voice while getting dressed before the show. It’s my thing with our assistant stage manager Natalie.


So those roles – of Sheppard as a white ‘saviour’ and Kidwell as an African-American woman being ‘saved’ – become warped and explicitly sexual and violent, not to mention completely inappropriate for the ‘schoolchildren’ they’re performing to.

There are warped costumes that play with scale and colour – like a huge skirt designed by Tilly Grimes that becomes a tent – as well as a complete lack of costume for some of the show’s more provocative moments.

In part, that extremeness and dismantling of taboos comes from American society’s deep-rooted insistence on puritanism, they explain.

Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game. Photo: Ben Arons Photography
Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game. Photo: Ben Arons Photography

“At times, Americans can have this posture of purse-clutching, ‘Oh my, how dare you, this is an outrage’,” says Kidwell. “And that puritanical streak in America is certainly something at play in the piece, where sometimes we’re in front of students and we are polite and we’re saying everything that we’re supposed to as middle-school teachers. But we’re also enticed to go to these really horrible, dark, sexual, unconscious places.”

She suggests it’s what Americans are seeing more broadly in society: an intense, puritanical values system, provoking a desire to kick against it. “Which is why you start getting into some weird shit like Stormy Daniels, weird shit with Russians.” Sheppard adds: “What you end up doing is having a system that becomes more exciting and more fun to break.”

American propaganda has focused on certain things while allowing other stories to be eclipsed

Within the show, the Underground Railroad game itself is only a jumping-off point, he says. “It’s a provocation to think about all the ways American propaganda has focused on certain things while allowing other stories and people and values to be eclipsed.”

What struck Kidwell was the fact that the only black bodies in Sheppard’s school were ragdolls. “This was a mainly white school and white teachers and there was no sort of agency for black people. And by locating all of that trauma in the past then you allow yourself to be off the hook for the traumas that persist today, the othering of the black body today.

“When I travel to other places there’s a detachment and there’s a completion of story arc about race in America,” but she hopes the show will make it clear how far from completion that story is.

She also hopes that international audiences don’t simply react by thinking “thank goodness we don’t have racism like that here”, but see the show instead as a provocation: “How have we framed the narrative of our own colonial past?”

Continues…


CV: Scott Sheppard

Born: 1984, New Jersey
Training: Literature and creative writing, Haverford College; Pig Iron School
Landmark productions:
• Gentlemen Volunteers, Pig Iron Theatre Company (2015)

• Holden, Ice Factory Festival, New York (2015)
• Underground Railroad Game, Ars Nova, New York (2016)
Awards: OBIE award for best new American theatre work for Underground Railroad Game (2017)
Agent: None


Q&A

What was your first non-theatre job?
Teaching English in France.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Apprentice at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Pig Iron Theatre Company, Geoff Sobelle, Elevator Repair Service, Young Jean Lee, Lucidity Suitcase.

If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been?
I probably would be an English teacher at a high school.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have a lucky beard that has been part of this show, and many other productions, since 2013. I bought it in 2012, and it hasn’t died yet.


The show is always alive to the audience in the room, shattering and rebuilding the fourth wall repeatedly while the lines between the performers as teachers and the performers as themselves blur.

Partly that’s come from the improvisational way in which they’ve created the show over half a decade, feeding their own personalities and perspectives into it. Kidwell and Sheppard’s interactions in real life move from respectful, almost deferential – “I’ll let Jenn answer that” – to intense argument in a moment. “Competition, play, and winning are not only key themes of the piece, but they are also the motors that drive our writing process,” says Sheppard.

And Kidwell notes that the passionate disagreements have brought the two of them much closer together. “We weren’t close when we started working on the piece,” she says, but they’ve developed an “intense and significant” bond over the course of five years.

The show has had various outings in many forms during that time, but one performance stands out for the two of them: in New York the night after Trump was elected. “There was a very palpable pall over the city,” says Kidwell. “In the morning, I remember taking the train and just like feeling in agony. Doing the show that night there was a really different feeling in the room.”

But there’s something particularly powerful about the piece now, under a president who says that a rally of white supremacists contains “some very fine people”. Kidwell says: “This feels like a piece of theatre that would be deemed unsafe by ‘Not My POTUS’, and that’s why it feels important.”

Underground Railroad Game runs at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre [1] from August 2 to 26 and at Soho Theatre from September 4 to 29 [2]