It is not often in the theatre that we are forced to confront racism head-on but Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard’s provocative, kaleidoscopic 75-minute comedy Underground Railroad Game, directed by Taibi Magar, which has transferred from the Edinburgh Festival to the Soho Theatre, tackles is in a crude and didactic fashion.
As its title suggests, it is about slavery and its opening scence set at night, is of a female slave seeking sanctuary in a barn terrified of capture. She is saved by a Quaker Abolitionist, one of the underground network sending slaves to safety in Canada.
This, however, turns out to be a ruse, an enactment organised by Hanover middle School teachers Stuart and Caroline, designed to teach us – their pupils – about slavery, a dark stain on the history of America, in which the Underground Railroad is a “silver lining”. The tone of the lesson is jaunty because we learn about history by living history, we are divided into the Confederate and Unionist armies. Points will be earned by the Unionists who smuggle slave dolls to freedom and safety, for Confederates, the house points on offer are for their capture. This teaching model is based on a real game that Sheppard experienced and is recreated with patronising voices, school bells and bases labelled Safe House.
But things soon become darker and more dangerous. It turns out that Stuart who is white and Caroline who is black, are having a relationship, and as they begin to date, the tangled web of historical assumptions that underlie even the simplest of statements is fearlessly and viciously exposed. His courtship of her, full of racially insensitive comments by way of flirtation, is played as light comedy and is cringeworthy. The scene culminates with them stripped bare, exposed in every possible way, psychologically and physically and, in reverse roles, Stuart is forced to stand completely naked, while Caroline taunts, humiliates and beats him in a scene of cruelty and arousal, designed to expose the shame of slavery.
This is not so much a play as a series of vignettes, some amusing, some shocking or brutal to make its point. But as a piece of drama, it lacks the necessary engagement with the characters, despite committed performances by Kidwell and Sheppard and consequently is devoid of emotional depth. It is as if the evils of slavery which we are all too aware of and one of the most toxic of American legacies are being rammed down our throats. I am sure a more measured and subtle approach would have paid off greater dividends.
Underground Railroad Game
Plays at Soho Theatre until Saturday 13 October 2018.