“Underground Railroad Game,” a much-praised 2016 play from Ars Nova that is being revived for just two weeks, is inspired by an actual game that co-creator Scott Sheppard was forced to play in fifth grade, when his school re-enacted a bizarre version of the Civil War. The students were divided into Union and Confederate soldiers, and won points for their team for either capturing black dolls that represented escaped slaves, or helping them flee to Canada.
Out of this already surreal memory, Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell have fashioned a captivating work of theater that is bravely acted, inventively designed, and relentlessly surprising — dizzying in its anarchic turns from playful to hateful, satiric to sadistic. The play’s two authors are its sole cast members, morphing in eight scenes over 75 minutes from runaway slave and Quaker abolitionist, to fellow middle school teachers overseeing an “educational Civil War,” to an awkwardly dating interracial couple, to intense role-players engaging in a full-on explicit fantasy involving sex and violence, with a safe word (“Sojourner”) that they ignore. There is even a brief, subtle moment when the author-actors as themselves, Scott and Jenn, debate what they’re doing. It’s a testament to their skills as both writers and actors that all these duos are understood to be the same two people.
I had not seen “Underground Railroad Game” during its run at Ars Nova’s theater on 54thStreet , and knew little about it before I wound up amused, shocked and provoked by this encore at Ars Nova’s new second theater in Greenwich House on Barrow Street in the Village. Since the surprises are much of what made the show feel so theatrically explosive to me, I am reluctant to disclose many details. (The photographs offer some clues.)
But it’s the very reliance on an adrenaline shot of theatricality that makes me wonder 1. how any theatergoers would react to the show upon seeing it a second time now knowing all that happens, and 2. whether, three years after its debut, there has been a change in the effectiveness of the drama and the themes of the show. (To extend the metaphor, what are our side effects from the script and after effects from the themes, after the adrenaline from the stagecraft wears off?)
Now, it’s hard to miss the pointed commentary beneath both the humor and the ferocity in the show. When Teacher Stuart and Teacher Caroline instruct us — we the audience are assigned the role of Hanover Middle School students — their lessons reflect the fatuous impulse of American educators to protect students from the realities of their history. The underground railroad that brought a handful of slaves to freedom, the teachers tell us cheerfully, “was the silver lining to the dark cloud that was slavery.”
Later, Stuart and Caroline’s flirtations reveal how wide the gap between black and white:
Stuart: I wonder what happens when your hair gets wet? Does the water just kinda fall off of it?
Caroline: I wonder what you’ll look like in the dark? Like, are you going to be my own personal night light?
But when “Underground Railroad Game” opened three years ago, Donald Trump had not yet been elected President. What’s happened since — “you had very fine people, on both sides” — makes some of the targets in “Underground Railroad Game” feel considerably less urgent.
“Underground Railroad Game” also comes back to New York (after touring three continents!) in 2019, which is the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves brought to America. Whether coincidentally or not, the year has been marked by a raft of plays by black playwrights that touch in varying degrees on slavery and its legacy. These include: Donja R. Love’s “Sugar in Our Wounds,” Charly Evon Simpson’s “Behind the Sheet,” Suzan-Lori Parks’s “ White Noise,” and Jordan E. Cooper’s “Ain’t No Mo.” and, of particular relevance, Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, which shares with “Underground Railroad Game” a predilection for surprise and for sexually explicit role-playing in its exploration of interracial relationships.
“Underground Railroad Game” now must take its place alongside these other plays, all of which suggest in a variety of ways that the stain of slavery hasn’t been erased in the United States 150 years after its legal elimination.
Click on any photograph by Ben Arons to see it enlarged.
Underground Railroad Game
Ars Nova at Greenwich House
Written and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard with Lighting Rod Special; Directed by Taibi Magar.
Production design by Tilly Grimes, scenic design by Steven Dufala, lighting design by Oona Curley, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, fight choreography by Ryan Borque, movement consultant David Neumann, production stage manager Lisa McGinn
Running time: 75 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $45-65, with premium tickets available at $90. A limited number of subsidized, original-run priced $35 tickets available through Ars Nova’s mailing list
Underground Railroad Game is on stage through June 15, 2019