UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME (FringeArts/ Lightning Rod Special): The safe word is “Sojourner”

Photo by Johanna Austin.

Photo by Johanna Austin.

Is history meant to move forward? Or should it be kept in the past? Don’t those two concepts mean the same thing anyway? These are just a sample of the questions pondered and humorously dramatized in UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME. This piece, created and performed by the daring duo Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard of devised theater company Lightning Rod Special, premiered in the 2015 Fringe Festival to critical acclaim. In its second incarnation, on the FringeArts stage, it retains the shock value and brash humor that made it one of the most talked-about performances from the 2015 Fringe.

Kidwell and Sheppard portray, respectively, a fictionalized Sojourner Truth and a Quaker Underground Railroad “conductor,” then two middle school teachers named Caroline and Stuart in present-day Hanover, Pennsylvania. Approximately fifteen miles from Gettysburg, where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought, Hanover Middle School takes its Civil War unit very seriously—except they don’t. To highlight the “silver lining” of the “dark stain on our nation’s history” that was slavery, Stuart and Caroline lead their students in the bizarre, insensitive Underground Railroad Game. They split the student body into Confederate and Union “soldiers.” The Union soldiers must secretly transport black baby dolls meant to signify slaves from “safehouse” to safehouse, until they have reached all of them and thus “escaped to Canada.” The Confederates’ goal is to capture as many of said “slaves” as possible. But what turns the discomfort of the Underground Railroad Game into laugh-out-loud humor is Stuart and Caroline’s goofy, unbridled gusto, and their extremely tense budding romance.

Kidwell and Sheppard lay bare the microaggressive racial tensions which still exist today; things that might be said as a joke in private are instead casually spat out in blunderous attempts at flirtation. In one early scene, Stuart and Caroline court one another by blatantly poking fun at each other’s skin tone, casually admitting their sexual fantasies about people of a different race. As Kidwell and Sheppard fluidly transform from teachers to historical figures, even to reflections of the audience itself, they do what theater does best: hold up a mirror to society. Steven Dufala’s sliding barn door/middle school gymnasium set design helps these transitions happen smoothly and simply.

Stuart is the embodiment of the way white men fetishize and “collect” sexual experiences with women of color, while Caroline tries to spite centuries of inequality by establishing dominance over her misguided lover. But when playing with sentiments carried over from antebellum history, is there truly anything to win?

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME is not for the overly sensitive, but it doesn’t go out of its way to offend. While deftly maneuvering through its heavier moments, the play is a thoroughly entertaining comedy that invokes laughs and much-needed dialogue on racial attitudes. The shifts from silliness to seriousness are subtle yet shocking—especially in fight choreographer Ryan Bourque’s discomfiting wrestling match sequence.

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME holds up to its original glory, despite some noticeable changes from its original production. Its residency at FringeArts is short-lived, so hurry and go see it while it’s still there. [FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard] May 11-21, 2016; fringearts.com/underground-railroad-game.

 

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About the author

Joshua Millhouse

Josh Millhouse is a writer, performer, and theater administrator based in West Philadelphia. He hopes, in the near future, to self-produce his own work. In the meantime, he's working hard, seeing lots of theater, and enjoying this circuitous pattern of trips to Wawa that is Philly life.