Tall Tales: Underground Railroad Game, A Review

Tall Tales: Underground Railroad Game, A Review

The “Underground Railroad Game” is now up at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company. The run is through July 1. Our Denver theater critic, award-winning author Mark Stevens, reviews the production. Tickets here.

Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell left & right. Ben Arons Photography.

Even the title suggests irreverence, that something is not quite right.

Underground Railroad Game.

What’s that word game doing there? How can anything associated with one of the most cherished chapters of American history be considered a game?

Wait for it.

In fact, you won’t have to wait long. The play starts as we might expect—a female slave hiding in a box in a barn, unsure at first she has found a safe haven. She’s quickly discovered by the Amish farmer and assured she’s safe and, well, getting ready for the whipsaw.

The house lights come on and these actors who were giving us a scene from the 19th Century are, in fact, teachers. The time is now. The audience (that’s us) are all students and Teacher Stuart (white) and Teacher Caroline (black) will lead us—the students of Hanover Middle School—in a fun game. Lucky us. The teachers are upbeat, they know we’re going to love it. They are just so damn cheerful about this aspect of The Civil War and if we reach down below our seats and pluck a little Civil War figurine out of an envelope, we’ll soon find out if we’re on the blue (Union) team or the gray (Confederate) team.

Blue team? Move the dolls from classroom to classroom toward freedom. Gray team? Find those dolls and return them to captivity! You’ll experience the same thing real slaves did!

An icky feeling might be growing in the pit of your stomach at this particular point in time. You might feel like this is one of those in-poor-taste Saturday Night Live skits that should have been scuttled. You will be very thankful that audience participation throughout the brisk 75-minute play is at a minimum, only that we are asked to pretend we are impressionable All-American kiddos in a Pennsylvania school being asked to swallow this squirm-inducing frivolity as a reasonable way to teach this era of horror.

Rest assured we are just getting started in this bold, chaotic, colorful, eye-popping play that includes more than a few moments when you wonder what you just witnessed (no details from me; best you experience the shock value fresh) and one of the longest, most extended and awkward periods of silence you might ever experience on stage during live theater.

How do we get from reductive, sanitized games in a middle school classroom to BDSM among consenting adults? (Okay, I just gave away a little something.) Well, Stuart and Caroline have a thing for each other and that attraction allows the play to dig around in the mess and muck of race and sexuality and guilt and power. Stuart and Caroline are the teachers, then the dating couple, and then morph back before our eyes to the farmer-slave combination. The transitions are explosive, instantaneous at times as we are carried back and forth, one scene tumbling into the next.

Underground Railroad Game is the work of Jennifer Kidwell, who plays Caroline, and Scott R. Sheppard, who plays Stuart. The show is theirs. They conceived it; they wrote it. In the program, Kidwell and Sheppard give credit and thank to Ars Nova (an incubator for edgy, “singular theater”) and the community of artists in Philadelphia and New York City who have helped develop U.R.G. since 2013. The play is directed by Taibi Magar. It premiered in the 2015 Fringe Festival in Philadelphia in 2015. After Denver, the show is on its way to Edinburgh in August and then London in September.

Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell left & right, Ben Arons Photography.

Given the years of work that’s gone into this piece, it’s no surprise that Kidwell and Sheppard are razor sharp. They fully embody all the layers of this multi-dimensional play. They are a flawless team. Timing? Impeccable.

Kidwell ranges from boisterous and bawdy to tender and vulnerable, particularly as a topless slave atop an outsized Mammy dress as she sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” (Wait! What? Really?) as Stuart, well, again I think you should take in this moment as it unravels (ahem) and not conjure images from whatever way I might try to describe it. Any written words would be lame.

Sheppard is alternately dweeby and goofy, then earnest and forthright. He treads carefully and is willing to take whatever punishment is coming his way, only up to the point where he is compelled to control the balance in power.

Underground Railroad Game, for its sheer audacity and occasionally stunning imagery, will take your breath away. I can imagine the detractors. Did they really have to go that far? Did it have to be so aggressive?

Underground Railroad Game prompts discussion. It practically demands it. How far have we really come in the last 150 years? Are we okay with the complete objectification of the word “slave?” Are we fine with teaching the “silver lining” of The Civil War (the good things white people did to help slaves escape that nasty business down there in The South) or are we ready to confront the hard reality of what happened at the hands of all those other white people? If we are teaching those events this way, how are we teaching everything else? Has history really…moved on?

The interlocking live-theater triptych on stage is a fast-moving continuum of action—slave days, interracial dating today, and how The Civil War is taught in school. When Teacher Stuart discovers a mean racial slur scrawled on the “safehouse” sign, he shows it us in the audience (us “students”) and we are immediately sucked into this vortex of discomfort and shame. It’s no longer a triptych. It’s a tetrapytch; we all play a role.

The Curious Theatre Company deserves tremendous credit for giving this production a home for its short run here—it’s a bracing show and one heck of a show to finish another strong season.

Underground Railroad Game is utterly compelling theatre. And that’s no joke.

More about Mark Stevens:

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent.

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts, but he’s been a Coloradoan since 1980.

Mark has worked as a print reporter, ((Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News), national news television producer, (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour) and school district communicator. He’s now laboring in the new economy, listed under “s” for self-employed public relations exec.

Mark has published four Colorado-based mysteries, “Antler Dust”(2007), “Buried by the Roan” (2011), “Trapline” (2014) and “Lake of Fire” (2015).  “Trapline” won the Colorado Book Award.  The fifth book, “The Melancholy Howl,” is due out in late 2018.

For more about Mark, check out his website.

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