Any play that features a scene in “Sex Detention” and a level of audience participation somewhat akin to pantomime immediately marks it out as different and The Underground Railroad Game is precisely that. Taking taboo subject matter and twisting the guilt, shame and horrors of slavery into a combination of comedy and searing, scathing drama is no mean feat yet Taibi Magar’s production makes good on that promise.
Having taken Edinburgh Festival by storm and featuring on a number of best of lists, this is a no holds barred exploration and dissection of race, power and how to repair the damage both have caused to the American psyche.
Written by its stars Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard, it takes inspiration from a game played by Sheppard as a child at his school in Pennsylvania. Here the audience is divided into Union and Confederate soldiers aided by plastic toys hidden under their seats. This is then merged with a conceit of smuggling slaves (dolls) to freedom and thus our lessons begin.
They have fused the roles of performer and performance into a thrilling, shocking, complex and fascinating theatrical experience
This game is the platform for a series of vignettes that touch on slavery, its legacy and the human costs and interactions still felt today. Teacher Caroline (Kidwell) who is Black and Teacher Stuart (Sheppard) are our guides through this exercise and as their relationship blossoms into something romantic and real its real world impact mirrors key moments in the civil war and period of slavery.
This includes a subplot about a Quaker helping a slave to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Whilst this flashback is fraught with drama, in the present their relationship often veers into highly comical moments, a throwaway remark where Stuart says the “N word” is swiftly followed by a riotous joke about a “pussy” and it’s in moments like this where the themes of white privilege, power, casual racism and sensitivity are exposed so succinctly that the audience keenly feel and know exactly what the play is trying to say. It is never lost, cloudy or unclear.
Much of the play is like this and it’s in that straddling of seriousness, satire and knowing smirks to the audience that the play excels. When Caroline says “Those words don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to you”, I felt the audience squirm and sigh with a knowing and complicit acceptance. By making us a part of the “game” we are confronting our feelings and fears and I can only wonder how the couple next to me, on their first date felt during this scene, which ironically takes place on Caroline and Stuarts first date too.
However, fun flirtation soon leads to fierce face offs, full frontal nudity and confrontations, which by the end have exposed them in nearly every way imaginable. Their physical and psychological trauma leaves nowhere to hide and this is beautifully rendered in the final scenes where the duality of the Quaker/Slave/Railroad subplot mirrors their present day procession into introspection.
What UK audiences make of this will be intriguing as the subject is clearly more of a weight on the shoulders and noose around the neck of American audiences but it is impossible not to be moved and mesmerised by the magnitude and fearlessness of this production. In attempting to attack the shame and futility of trying to forget or escape the past they have fused the roles of performer and performance into a thrilling, shocking, complex and fascinating theatrical experience. I dare you to play. You won’t forget it in a hurry.