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This hit American comedy is coming to shake up our ideas about history and racism

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Created by American theatre-makers Scott R Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell, Underground Railroad Game is a no-punches-pulled historical satire exploring the enduring trauma of black slavery in the US. But while its substance is rooted in American history, Australian audiences will no doubt feel its connection to cultural conundrums closer to home, as it uncovers the ways historic truths can be manipulated, trivialised, politically cheated or conveniently ignored.

The inspiration for the show came from an experience Sheppard had as a fifth grader in a South-Central Pennsylvanian school. Located on the Mason-Dixon Line, near some of the most significant battlefields of the American Civil War, Sheppard’s teachers used “educational role-play” to explore the local heritage. Sheppard and his classmates were split into two groups: some cast as the Northern, abolitionist Union soldiers, the others as the Southern, pro-slavery Confederates.

Photograph: Ben Arons

“In this game, Union students were responsible for shepherding these ‘slave’ dolls around to different boxes that were labelled ‘safe-house’ and the Confederate students had to try and capture these dolls so they could be returned to their slave owners. I was in this almost all-white school, I was trying to be a good student who didn’t question the educational techniques I was exposed to, so it wasn’t until years later as an adult that I really understood what a messed-up thing this game was,” Sheppard explains.

“And as I started to really analyse this game in my mind, it became clear that it revealed the changing ways in which racism pervades a society. You know, it was still the objectification of black bodies, it was still this mode of storytelling where white experiences were at the centre of the story. It wasn’t an actual exploration of what these enslaved people went through. It was boiled down to facts and dates that showed the same kind of ignorance to that plight that people have always had and continued to have.” 

Since its 2015 premiere at Philadelphia’s FringeArts Festival, the humble two-hander that sprang from this childhood memory has grown into an international smash-hit, earning rave reviews in New York, Germany and Edinburgh. Declaring it one of the most significant new plays in 25 years, The New York Times described Underground Railroad Game as “in-all-ways sensational.” Time Out London's five-star review dubbed it “a courageous, ridiculous, brilliant show.”

Photograph: Ben Arons

One of the production’s most applauded qualities is its white-knuckle commitment to a particularly caustic brand of comedy. “Humour is a destabilising force in art,” Kidwell says. “It has a unique ability to quickly and incisively get towards truth and confront hypocrisy and make us face things we’re thinking but not saying, or feeling but not showing. It’s a kind of tenderiser for the audience. Comedy can turn in unexpected ways, it can reveal dark truths, it can reveal tragedy. So, it really becomes the fulcrum for every part of this story.”

It’s both uncanny and unsurprising that a similar kind of toe-curling wit has also been used by Australian First Nations artists to interrogate race relations, most notably playwright Nakkiah Lui. And indeed, there are many shared resonances between America’s slave stories and the devastating impact of European invasion on Australia’s Indigenous population. But perhaps the most shockingly familiar issue revealed by Underground Railroad Game is the way national pride is used to disguise historical shame.

“The amount of time we spend on it educationally and culturally is not in proportion to the number of people impacted if you just look at the number of people who were and continue to be affected by slavery,” Sheppard says. “So it often ends up becoming a very sanitised, obscuring narrative, to cover up a lot of the horrors of the past by painting a more optimistic story about freedom and liberty and best intentions. But the truth is, the heroic mythos of the 'American Dream' is a lie.”

Underground Railroad Game is at Malthouse Theatre until February 17.

Check out our hit-list of the best shows in Melbourne this month and tips for scoring cheap theatre tickets.

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