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Review: Underground Railroad Game Is a Wild Ride at Curious

Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game.
Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game.
Ben Arons, Ars Nova
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Curious Theatre Company’s Chip Walton is dedicated to exploring issues of social justice, and this dedication has led to all kinds of interesting productions, by playwrights ranging from Tony Kushner to Tarell A lvin McCraney. A year ago, the company inserted Building the Wall into its previously announced schedule, a play that Pulitzer winner Robert Schenkkan had written in a two-week fury of inspiration just before the election in response to Donald Trump’s candidacy. These disruptions are costly and risky, but Walton believes the urgency of the times requires a response. Now he’s slipped Underground Railroad Game — a piece written and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, and designed to jolt us into consciousness — in at the end of the current, and twentieth, season.

The play is in no way didactic, nor is it really a spur to action. The content is more dreamlike — nightmarish, even — than analytic. And it’s riveting.

An escaped slave slides nervously across the stage, hides. A bearded man appears. He’s a Quaker, come to show her the direction that she needs to take. But the idea of going on alone makes her afraid: “I’m gonna need some help,” she tells him. The scene has a serious, soft-focus quality.

Then the action moves to a middle-school classroom and the characters have transformed, the slave becoming Teacher Caroline, the Quaker Teacher Stuart and we, the audience, student participants in an educational game. We’re divided into Union and Confederate soldiers. Slaves, represented by dolls, will break for freedom and attempt to find safety in particular classrooms. We’ll either help or capture them, depending on our affiliation. This is not participatory theater, however, and though the game provides a kind of framework for the scenes that follow, we don’t actually play it.

We don’t focus much on the Civil War, either, as it soon become clear that teachers Stuart and Caroline are hugely attracted to each other. They draw close and move apart, dance, fiercely misunderstand each other. Some astonishingly graphic scenes follow. At one point, Caroline is transformed into a giant, stereotypically dressed slave while the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” croons in the background. Stuart explores her contours, takes off her top, suckles at her breasts and vanishes under the huge umbrella of her skirt. She comes loudly. An even more daring scene occurs after they discover an ugly epithet on the game’s Safehouse sign. Caroline starts expressing her sadness and hurt, the fact that she feels diminished; Stuart interrupts with furious threats to whomever vandalized the sign, then proposes. After which they jostle and shove, playfulness turns to anger, and she transforms into a vicious dominatrix.

The performances are terrific and brilliantly courageous. Kidwell and Sheppard worked together for years to make this piece, and it’s clear that as it evolved out of their thoughts, creative ideas and arguments, the material took on richness and depth; the frightening advance and retreat of the couple on stage surely mirrors the performers’ creative process. It’s all fascinating — but the work is so inward that it’s hard to decipher a meaning.

I could say the play is about the stories we tell to minimize our tainted history, or that this original sin has penetrated so deeply that it poisons almost all interactions between black and white. Perhaps the huge nurturing mammy figure represents Stuart’s fantasies about black women’s bodies, the whip-wielding woman and trembling man Caroline’s longing for revenge…or maybe Stuart’s desire for punishment and absolution. Was that kindly Quaker at the beginning a parody of the way that liberal whites see themselves as saviors — always putting themselves at the center of the frame, as Stuart did when he interrupted Caroline’s thoughts about that racist sign over and over again? I have no idea, and this ambiguity is ambiguous in itself: You could take it for a flaw or a strength. For me, it’s a flaw.

And yet, this is an evening I wouldn’t want to have missed.

Underground Railroad Game, presented by Curious Theatre Company through July 1, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.

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