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Theater review: Race and romance go off the rails in Underground Railroad Game

Theater review: Race and romance go off the rails in Underground Railroad Game
Photograph: Ben Arons

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's a hint of race war in the color war–style kids’ game for which Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard’s outrageously funny and discomfiting show is named. Kidwell, who is black, and Sheppard, who is white, play Caroline and Stuart, teachers at an elementary school just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. To get fifth graders jazzed about the Civil War—especially the “silver lining” of the Underground Railroad—they divide the kids into gray and blue teams that get points for shuttling slave dolls to classroom “safehouses,” or for thwarting attempts to do so: “Each one of these slaves is an opportunity for you to score points for your team.”

“We don’t learn our lessons; we live our lessons,” says Stuart, and this motto is borne out as the relationship between the teachers spills into a romance fraught with awkwardness, guilt, fetishism, role play and rescue fantasy. In imaginative leaps of time and place, strikingly rendered by director Taibi Magar and her designers, the two share an elegant pas de deux to Sarah Vaughan’s “Misty” and enact a fantasy in which he is a kind farmer and she a runaway slave; at one point, she appears in grand house-slave drag as he suckles at her nipple and then crawls beneath her giant skirt. The taboo-flouting script is matched by bold, smart performances from both actors. Although the play resists smugness, Stuart comes off worse than Caroline, perhaps because his motivations are clearer, and it is fascinating to see how that plays out. At the performance I attended, the laughter and shock of the almost exclusively white audience had a tinge of self-flagellation, which felt gratifying—if not, as the play makes clear, necessarily liberating.

Ars Nova (Off Broadway). By Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard. Directed by Taibi Magar. With Kidwell, Sheppard. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Nov 11. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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