Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

TheatreBloom rating:

Moving history forward and making progress are not the same thing. In a highly provocative, yet critically acclaimed, exploratory and awkwardly intense theatrical experience, Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stewart takes the 5th grade students of Hanover Middle School— *caw caw* GO HAWKS!— through an interactive and immersive educational model of the Civil War. Only they aren’t really Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stewart, they are Underground Railroad Game’s co-creators Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, and the 5th grade Hanover Middle School students are you, the audience. Debuting in back half of the 2017/2018 season at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game, directed by Taibi Magar, is a raw and unabashedly forward exploration of a troubled history intermingled with explorations of romantic and sexual entanglement between races via the lens of fantasy and fetishism.

Known for their conversation starters when it comes to producing theatre, Woolly Mammoth has succeeded in placing The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game in the back half of this season, more than readily sparking a good half-dozen conversations about race, sexual relationships, history, and equality in all of those arenas. What Kidwell and Sheppard have created in this theatrical endeavor bares a world of labels; some will call it an abomination, others divinity incarnate, and others still something too weird for simple words. At its essence, Kidwell and Sheppard has fabricated a critical conversation about our nation’s history, laser-focused into the racial tensions and relations of the Civil War, which despite being physically some 150-odd years behind us are still disturbingly present in today’s society.

Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Scott Suchman

Disturbing is a word that often caries negative weight when used to describe just about anything, but true art was meant to comfort the discomforted and discomfort the comfortable; this piece does both of those things. It is indeed disturbing, and some might argue unnecessary— considering the brazen nudity and sexuality— but what it is not is afraid. Underground Railroad Games is unabashedly unafraid and unapologetically unashamed about how it approaches race and racial tensions, in both the arenas of history and modern sexual fantasy. Confusing is another delightful word that could readily fit the bill for the production, to the lesser informed, as the play bleeds in and out of varying degrees of reality, to the point of causing constant vexation over what is happening for real versus what is an extrapolated fantasy of the mind. There is a peaked level of absurdity in the play as well, not just in things like the “living history” moment where middle school students “time travel” to meet a real-life living slave woman, but in the melodramatic and showy nature of the opening scene as well as the scenes that burst into spontaneous and hokey dance, not dissimilar to old-school movie musicals with Gene Kelly.

All of this aside, the disturbing sexual exposure— and to be clear, this is a production designed for mature audiences as it features full-frontal male nudity with provocative and wantonly exposed sexual practices— the confusing bleeds of reality to fantasy and vice versa, those fundamentally taxing elements notwithstanding, the play is powerful, evocative, and relevant. Cast aside any pre-conceived notions you might have about whether or not extreme sexual activity and full-frontal male nudity has any place in the theatre, and turn off any censorship that you might carry about with you in your day-to-day life, because the experience, exposed as it is, needs to be absorbed with as open of a mind as possible.

Director Taibi Magar is a champion of the stage, pushing these two co-creators into almost inconceivably awkward situations— not wanting to run the risk of creating any true spoilers, it shall just be said that sexual activity, varying states of nudity, and scenes of climactic violence are among those situations— to achieve a successful production. Magar is as unafraid of the work, the message the work sends, and the topics discussed within the performance as the two performers who are performing it. Doing a fine job of crafting the surreal blurring of lines between fantasy and reality Magar morphs this performance experiment into a unique experience. Involving the audience on a semi-meta level, as per the script, Magar works with Lighting Designer Oona Curley to cue up the house lights whenever the two performers are addressing their students, so that we feel like we are authentically a part of the show.

Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Scott Suchman

There is some difficulty in attempting to discuss the performances of Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell without giving away the game, so to speak, but it can be unanimously said of both that they possess courage beyond human comprehension. This is not merely because of all the nudity and sexually intense scenarios, but because of the topics that they are unafraid to tackle, or are perhaps afraid to tackle, but do so anyhow. Isn’t that, after all, the definition of courage? Knowing that you’re licked but beginning anyhow and seeing it through no matter what? Sheppard and Kidwell explore racism in a way that is often considered too taboo for discussion; they discover it through the lens and vice of their romantic entanglement, even going so far as to fetishize it, albeit satirically at times, and utilize jokes that by some could be considered tasteless and vulgar. Their initial exchanges create palpable pregnant pauses of awkward, and that’s just when they start scratching the surface of racial tension in the show.

What is so remarkable about the show— in addition to the evocative and provocative way it tackles this myriad of important subject matters— is how well Kidwell and Sheppard trust one another on stage. This is visibly apparent in the way they glide through scenes without incident, even when the play turns drastically shocking, especially so, Kidwell and Sheppard never lose that sense of balance and respect for one another. Kidwell and Sheppard are having serious conversations— with one another, with history, with the audience— even if at times they are using irreverent means to do so. This is part of what makes their work so intriguing. Both should be praised for their ability to channel true “teacherness”, wherein it feels as if they could be those modern day middle school teachers who try way too hard to be seen as “cool” by their students. When they address the ‘student body’ aka the audience, they use staring techniques and disciplinary tones, among other tactics, to fall into that teacher grove with a well-practiced ease.

Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in Underground Railroad Game at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Scott Suchman

 Kidwell and Sheppard are a powerhouse duo of give and take. It feels wrong to speak of them individually in the show as they are nearly inseparable and it is as much her story as it is his; both of their characters— the several that they cycle through— are immaculately well crafted, carefully conceptualized and brought to fruition with an exaggerated believability that belays the absurdity and simultaneously the gravity of what they’re trying to address. Underground Railroad Game is a powerful teaching tool, a powder-keg of a conversation starter, and a fully loaded theatrical experience that should be undertaken with an open mind. Don’t miss this unique, once-in-a-lifetime production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company this 2017/2018 season; this is one production you will regret not seeing.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission

Underground Railroad Game plays through April 29, 2018 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in the heart of DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood— 614 D Street NW, Washington DC  20004. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

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