‘Underground Railroad Game’ review

Theatre, Experimental
5 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Brilliantly subversive race relations satire, fresh from success in New York and Edinburgh

This review is from ‘Underground Railroad Game’s run at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard’s ‘Underground Railroad Game’ comes to the Fringe with a pedigree that no other show here would even dare dream of: The New York Times recently named this exact production the twenty-first best American theatre show of the last 25 years.

Which is a lot to live up to, but this snarling, snarky satirical two-hander about race in America flips off any sort of attempt to put it on a pedestal.

We open in a barn, where a black woman in nineteenth century togs munches on an apple nervously. She hears a noise, and hides in terror from the white farmer who appears. But it’s okay – he’s a Quaker, and part of the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of abolitionist whites who helped slaves escape the antebellum South. She is grateful. Maybe a little too grateful? Something is weird here... and then the two performers reveal themselves to be high school teachers Caroline (Kidwell, who is black) and Stuart (Sheppard, who is white). And we are their class.

‘Underground Railroad Game’ is a freewheeling, foulmouthed, often excruciating look at race relations and America’s inability to come to terms with its past.

It is very intense, very brave, and also very funny: in perhaps the best scene, the two teachers go on a date together, and end up trying to talk dirty to each other about each other’s race and I had to look through my fingers while cackling hysterically - it’s a bravura scene that’s goofy and horrifying all at the same time.

There is a game: as part of a dubious history assignment, based upon one Sheppard really received at school, the audience is randomly divided into Unionist and Confederate, and the crass rules – which involves smuggling little slave dolls between classrooms – are explained to us.

We never actually have to do it, but the idea of it provides a sort of frame for a melange of vignettes in which racial tropes – white saviours, black temptresses – get pushed to extremes.

A huge part of the show is the extremity of the performances: there’s nudity, there’s violence, I’m pretty sure I saw some actual blood. It’s obviously entertaining that Kidwell and Sheppard approach it at such a full tilt. But there’s more than that: its chaos, its physicality, all speaks of America’s agonised inability to be a peace with itself, a legacy of shame and hurt and mutual distrust that simply can’t be expunged.

I don’t think it can hit home quite as hard for Brits, simply because the American Civil War is not something that means as much to us. Still, this attempt to grapple with the past feels gutsier and healthier than the way in which we simply try and sweep imperial ills under the carpet. A courageous, ridiculous, brilliant show.


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