WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Underground Railroad Game” is onstage at D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre through April 29 and is not a production for the faint at heart.
Raw, provocative and in-yourface, this often funny treatise on how we view race in our relationships uses the background of the American Civil War to explore racisim, slavery and the complexity of the real Underground Railroad used by enslaved people to escape from the South to the North. An Ars Nova Production by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard with the theater company Lightning Rod Special, the play won the 2017 Obie Award for Best New American Theatre Work.
Featuring Kidwell and Sheppard as two middle school teachers who teach a class on Civil War lore, the play was inspired by Sheppard’s own real-life experience as a fifth grader in Hanover, Pa. where his class participated in a live-action role-playing game called the Underground Railroad Game.
The class was divided into Union and Confederate soldiers, and dolls were used as slaves fleeing to reach a safehouse on the railroad. Union soldiers earned points for each safehouse they were able to transport a doll to. Confederate soldiers earned points for each slave they would capture.
Fast forward to today, and Kidwell and Sheppard play Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart who use the entire Wolly Mammoth Theater audience as their middle school class. There is lots of audience participation as the play tamely kicks off with Kidwell playing a fleeing slave who sneaks into the barn of a kindly abolitionist.
Quickly, however, with the audience competing against each other as Union and Confederate soldiers, the two co-creators push buttons and cross lines, particularly those of power. Throw romance between the two actors into the equation, and the competition arcs up with the intensity in the theater becoming almost mind-bending.
Kidwell and Sheppard use role reversal effectively in the play, and it is one of the production’s major strengths. Without giving away some of the play’s most intriguing moments, and there are many, I will simply say look for an auction block scene where Teacher Stuart is on a block being looked over and examined by Teacher Caroline. It is powerful, unsettling and disturbing.
Another explosive moment is when Teacher Stuart finds a safehouse sign covered over with the words “n----lover.” As members of the class, audience members are urged to look into the eyes of the person sitting next to them to determine who may have used the words.
At times, the onstage action becomes almost too intense, but it is the point that Kidwell, Sheppard and Director Taibi Magar obviously want to make. If you feel outside of your comfort zone, then the co-creators have done their job.