Underground Railroad Game review at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘fearless and explosive’
Featuring on the New York Times list of 25 best plays since Angels in America, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard’s play is a merciless exploration of race.
Inspired by a game that Sheppard actually played when he was at school in Pennsylvania, it divides the audience into Union and Confederate sides. The idea is to smuggle slaves – as represented by dolls – to freedom. Kidwell and Sheppard play teachers guiding the audience in this valuable learning experience. The game is just a springboard for a bold, ferocious comedy about the legacy of slavery and the way it permeates people’s interactions.
Kidwell and Sheppard play Teacher Caroline, who is black, and Teacher Stuart who is white. The pair beams at the audience and speaks to them with cheery, eager teacher voices. The two teachers then begin a relationship with one another. He’s unsure how to talk to a black woman. Her experience of race differs from his. Language is central to this. As Kidwell is quick to point out: “Those words don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to you.”
This leads to an excruciating (and hilarious) scene in which they exchange racially insensitive comments by way of flirtation. It cumulates with them stripped bare, exposed in every possible way, psychologically, physically.
Fortunately, they never make us play the game of the title. Instead, the piece, devised by Kidwell and Sheppard for their company Lightning Rod Special, takes the form of a series of vignettes. It opens with a skit in which a terrified black woman encounters a Quaker abolitionist. Later, Kidwell appears dressed as a Mammy figure and Sheppard gleefully disappears beneath her vast skirts. American racial archetypes are twisted and eviscerated: the white man as saviour and violator, the black woman as a source of sexual temptation.
The production is also intensely physical. Kidwell and Sheppard both use their bodies, their skin, to explore the weight of race and its complex role in American identity. The play plunges into places theatre rarely goes. The shame that sits like a stone in the stomach. The impossibility of escaping history.
The line between performer and performance, reality and representation becomes increasingly blurred. They end up drenched in sweat, panting with exhaustion, and staring at each other accusingly.
While its impact on an American audience might be greater than on an Edinburgh Fringe crowd, Taibi Magar’s production is still genuinely thrilling. Often shocking, it engages with things that still feel taboo. It’s funny but in a queasy, deeply unsettling way. It is discomfiting and slippery, complex and fascinating. This is explosive, fearless theatre and it’s impossible not to be rocked by it.