You know how art can be fucking crazy? (‘You know how people have these little habits that get you down?’) Like how artists, regardless of their medium, like to shock their audience into strongly feeling something so they do bonkers things like using feces instead of paint (real example) and preserving a shark in formaldehyde (real example) and nailing their scrotum to Red Square (real example) and constructing a complicated series of machines that take food and pass it through tubes and bowls to digest it in stages until it literally produces poo at the end (real example that I’ll discuss more of when I blog about our Australia adventure)? Well here’s one more example! ‘Underground Railroad Game’, considered one of the 25 best plays of the past 25 years by the New York Times, is forking nuts and made me feel very uncomfortable in ways no theatre has ever done. Yet unlike the aforementioned examples of alarming ‘art’, this play wasn’t being scandalous just for the sake of being scandalous – it actually had a purpose for wicking me out so much, and although I’m still grappling with it, I can’t deny that it was powerful. (The other examples are bullshirt.)
And boy does it start off funny. The play opens on a barn at night in the 1800s, as a scared, skittish black woman enters and ravenously eats an apple from her pocket. But when she hears a man outside, she hides in a wooden box. The man still finds her but tells her she doesn’t have to be scared – he’s one of the good white men, an ‘angel’ really, who will help this runaway slave escape to the north. Their acting is overly earnest and over the top, and kind of funny but we started to worry that the entire play was going to bank on this conceit holding water for more than a few minutes. Of course, just when we thought ‘hmm is this really this play?’, the lights came on in the entire theatre, jarring the audience, and the two actors came closer downstage and said to us, “Okay class! What did we learn?”
Those two actors, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, are the two creators and writers of this play. And they’re not playing a slave and an abolitionist – they’re playing two enthusiastic teachers at Hanover Middle School, and we, the audience members, are their 7th grade students. They explain that their little skit was an introduction to their social studies unit on the Underground Railroad, in which they will combine forces as classes. We students would be separated into Union and Confederate Troops, and during the next few weeks, the Union army would try to sneak black baby dolls from one classroom’s wooden box to the other’s without Confederate troops catching them – our own underground railroad! To see which side we were on, we were told to look under our seats, where we all found little envelopes with little army men figurines inside. (This is when I broke my theatre rule of No Talking and whispered to Husband “oh so this is like REALLY interactive, huh.”) Who has a blue figure? they asked, and the appropriate audience members whooped, as people do. You’re the Union army! Who has a gray figure? I did, and I was told ‘You’re the Confederacy!’ Instead of whooping, we all, being woke, booed, and Sheppard quickly said “Hey hey none of that! We support our troops!” and we all died laughing.
As middle school teachers, they absolutely slayed me with their pitch perfect demeanor and comments. “Eyes up here!” they pointedly shouted at anyone who was talking to their companion or looking elsewhere. “I better not see any phones kids!” My favorite too-accurate thing of theirs was when the (extended) school bell would ring and they’d both shout together at us: “That’s not our bell! That’s not our bell! Stay seated!” One such moment had me laughing so hard that I made a little squeak-laugh sound after the rest of the audience had already quieted down from their laughter. Sheppard and Kidwell both focused their attention on me like laser beams and glared me down and then Sheppard said, “We’ll wait.” I wanted to laugh even harder at that but true to middle school form I just turned bright red instead and wanted to vomit as everyone turned to look at me, but I also became hysterical.
So I bet you are thinking this sounds just HILARIOUS and like a jolly good time, and it really was, because this was the nice little part that represented how most people learn about racism and America’s racist history – they make it palatable in our schools, and easy and clean and no one gets hurt. But that way doesn’t really work, because our history wasn’t easy or clean and way too many people got hurt, and continue to get hurt, from the racist foundations of America. These cheerful lessons don’t do much to teach kids about real racism and how it affects our society or stop them from growing up into racist adults.
And so, Kidwell and Sheppard swiftly change the story’s focus from these cute lessons for the kids onto their interpersonal relationship as teachers, and then as romantic partners, of two different races. At first it’s funny, like in their Gene-Kelly-throwback dancing around town, or when they ‘walk’ through town making jokes about race that quickly go too far. Even though they start pushing boundaries early on, they’re still boundaries we have seen before, so the discomfort is familiar.
But then. Oh but then. As their relationship progresses, they can no longer gloss over the serious issues created by their different races or the history of what that difference means. Sure both of them teach about slavery but only one of them really understands it on a profound rather than academic level. As a black woman and a white man, they are going to be haunted by the master and slave relationship of their ancestors, haunted by their own lesson plan of whether they’d be reaffirming or rewriting history together. They try to work out their issues in weird sexual ways that become somewhat cruel. Then the somewhat falls by the wayside and these two incredibly brave (but like mean to me) performers start exorcising the demons of history in full-on sadomasochistic ways, playing back and forth with the master and slave roles as the stunned audience looks on and wonders whether we should go get help. The first glimpse of a stark naked Sheppard elicits gasps from the astonished audience, but then he’s naked for like a good 20 minutes, as Kidwell treats him like he’s on an auction block and breaks rulers on his back and chases him around with terrifying advances, culminating in him masturbating into a flag. All of it seemed real – especially, grossly, that last bit – so it was distressing, offensive, and actually appalling to watch. As I covered my face with my hands, I was flabbergasted that the adorable little middle-school-assembly show I was laughing at an hour ago had morphed into this horrifying trauma for everyone involved. But I get it. Going too far in ways we’ve never really seen before in the theatre (at least mainstream theatre) let them so powerfully argue that the horrors of slavery are as relevant and real today as they were in the past, damaging people and relationships and society still. I mean I think they had to do it, at least. I’m still quite traumatized.
‘Underground Railroad Game’ is at London’s Soho Theatre until October 13th (looks like they got an extension). Tickets are pretty cheap.
No I didn’t stage door are you kidding me I saw them naked.