How can you unpack a show with as many racial, sexual, and historical bombshells as Underground Railroad Game? The conceit of the play (2017 Obie Award Winner, Best New American Theatre Work) is an American Civil War-themed game in which one half of the audience plays middle-school students playing Union soldiers tasked with moving slave dolls from one “safehouse” (actually a school room) to another for 30 points. The other half of the audience plays middle-school students playing Confederate soldiers tasked with capturing slave dolls for 45 points a capture.
This conviction-shattering, R-rated, unsettling, full-frontal-nude-bearing show, created and co-created respectively by its two cast members, Obie Award Winners Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, lives up to Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s reputation as a purveyor of shows that are boldly entertaining, mold-breaking, and, at times, indelicate.
Kidwell and Sheppard played teachers at a Hanover, Pennsylvania (near Gettysburg) middle school, named Caroline and Stuart, and in scenes that took place before the Civil War, an abolitionist Quaker active in the Underground Railroad, and a runaway slave. The show was originally a 2015 Fringe Festival show in Philadelphia, and from there premiered at the Off-Broadway Ars Nova theater in the fall of 2016.
Sheppard got the idea for the show from playing the game depicted in the show in the fifth grade. Sheppard wrote in the program’s Q & A that the play “explores dares, games, and the ways in which competition can reveal things about ourselves that we would normally protect, censor, or edit.”
As the story progressed, teachers Stewart and Caroline fell in love and danced to the old, Johnny Mathis tune, “Misty.” Kidwell and Sheppard excelled in their acting and on-stage chemistry in these early scenes. They impressively mime-walked their way through their cute getting-to-know-you-better scene.
From there the show meandered into a scene featuring out of control bondage\race play, including the use of the safe word “Sojourner,” as in abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Kidwell defended the more libidinous scenes in the play in her interview in the program: “if you’re going to do a piece dealing with race in America, and you have a white guy and a Black woman, you have to talk about sex.”
Sheppard was solid throughout and Kidwell at her best when she portrayed darker emotions. I liked Kidwell’s vocals in the old standard “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Director Taibi Magar kept the 90-minute show aloft at a fleet-footed pace. Scenic Designer Steven Dufala’s set consisted of a United States flag house left, and a Confederate flag house right, a blue curtain, and the wall of a barn. Oona Curley’s lighting design followed the pattern of the house lights going up to indicate the school day, as the play jumped from the historical to the contemporary, and back dark again as the play ventured into the past.
Underground Railroad Game is the type of play that makes you ask complete strangers in the lobby afterward, “What did you think?” It won’t suit everyone, though it did get a standing ovation. Being cast in the role of middle school students made audience participation awkward because the audience never knew whether to respond to the actors as an audience or the imaginary students.
If you feel theater should challenge you to the point where you are squirming and shallow-breathed, go and see it. If you don’t like being challenged when you see a play, go see it anyway for what it will show you about the human condition.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.