Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Wiz
The work, produced in 2016 at Ars Nova in New York City and created with the help of the Lightning Rod Special company in Philadelphia, received a 2017 Obie Award for Best New American Theatre Work. It was created by its performers, Scott R. Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell, inspired by Sheppard's childhood experience with a role-playing game at a school near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In this performance, directed with style and endless ingenuity by Taibi Magar, the studentsin this case, the audience (no hands-on participation required)are randomly sorted into members of the Union and Confederate armies. Union soldiers help fleeing slaves (represented by dolls) reach safe houses as part of the Underground Railroad, while Confederates capture the slaves and put them in jail. Sheppard and Kidwell just take this framework to its surreal conclusion in the characters of two teachers, Stuart and Caroline.
While the "lesson" begins with a cheesy skit showing Stuart, a slightly smug Quaker abolitionist, accepting the gratitude of escaped slave Caroline, that's just the surface. Caroline, who is African American, is tired of the lessons of the Civil War boiling down to good and bad white people and reducing the enslaved African Americans to objects without agency. Stuart, a sensitive white liberal, sometimes acts like the righteous man condescending to help the downtrodden, but at other times he wants to humble himself before the idealized black woman. (Bondage has more than one meaning in this production.)
Tilly Grimes' production design and Steven Dufala's scenic design get a lot of use out of a few simple components including a curtain, a wood-plank rear wall, Union and Confederate flags, a sign whose meaning changes significance during the play, those small rag-doll slavesand one almost architectural costume for Kidwell. Oona Curley's lighting design and Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design delineate the shifts among levels of fantasy and reality, including a few unexpected moments of romantic dancing.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
For more information on the tour, visit arsnovanyc.com/underground_railroad_game.