Underground Railroad Game at Soho Theatre
The makers of Underground Railroad Game know the power of shame. They know how to harness the uncomfortable and maximise queasiness. Cringing audience members come out with stiffer muscles than if they’d spent the one hour 15 minutes’ running time on the pull-up bar. For that reason, this Ars Nova production could only be presented as live theatre. Much like An Octoroon, it forces every person in the room to emphatically inhabit their own skin, to acknowledge their own race and that of their neighbour, to feel the weight of history and the reality of the present.
The show’s concept was born out of co-creator and performer Scott R Sheppard’s experience of playing “the underground railroad game” at his predominantly white Pennsylvania school. Students were invited to re-enact the Civil War and were thusly split into Union and Confederate sides. The former tried to smuggle black dolls between safehouses; the latter attempted to intercept them. This game forms the framework of the drama, but the whole thing is a series of vignettes, each one examining a facet of the black/white dynamic.
Can a relationship exist in a vacuum? How much of our life experience overlaps? Is every skin a signifier loaded with expectation and meaning, or can we transcend our bodies? How does the past impact on the future? How can sex avoid the trap of power play? How can words be weaponised? How can skin be fetishised? A fearless exploration of race that will never fail to be relevant, the production both dares and implores you to watch.
And how well-made it is too. There are layers of meta-theatricality and there is humour in abundance. Tilly Grimes and Steven Dufala have created a stage that frequently offers up arresting tableaus. A certain costume decision involving a gigantic mound of skirt and a tent is wonderfully surreal and tender.
Co-creators and performers Jennifer Kidwell and Sheppard exhibit an intimacy and trust that is no common thing on the stage. Two particular moments of nudity and an instance of fairly brutal arse-paddling must have been ever so carefully choreographed and yet still require a well of courage to revisit night after night. Committed and copiously talented, the actors are a pleasure to watch.
Underground Railroad Game is confronting and important but it’s also a delicious piece of theatre that will fill your memory bank with distinct and perfect snapshots of dusty Southern America, hair-raising sexual romps and peppy modern-day Americana.
Photo: Aly Wright
Underground Railroad Game is at Soho Theatre from 4th September until 13th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.