After hearing about it for years as it made its way through New York, it’s a bit funny to finally be seeing Underground Railroad Game—a play, in part, about a pair of middle school teachers guiding their class through a lesson about American slavery—in Edinburgh. At first, I wasn’t totally sure what is gained by touring this play to Europe, where audiences are one step further removed from events that can already feel so far away.
That seems to be how middle school teachers Caroline (Jennifer Kidwell) and Stuart (Scott R. Sheppard) feel, anyway—that the history they teach, including that of the American Civil War and slavery, is so far away. That’s why it needs to be brought to life with scenes and roleplay and games. That’s why they can turn the brutal power imbalances of slavery and racial oppression into fodder for flirtation and eventually for sex.
The audience kept gasping, waiting for the inevitable turn, for Caroline, who is black, to become offended by the bumbling of Stuart, who is white—but no, it’s all just a game. Their lessons, too—the mock Civil War they stage amongst their students, where they can earn points by shuttling black baby dolls (invariably referred to as ‘it’) to safety in other classrooms, class (and audience) divided into Union and Confederacy—those are games as well. Until they’re not.
And Caroline and Stuart’s interplay of masochistic sexual humiliation rooted in the language of slavery by which they are both utterly repelled and magnetically drawn is just a game, too—until it’s not. It’s all just history—we can look at it dispassionately now, we can look on the bright side—until it isn’t.
Hilarious and agonizingly awkward and sincerely shocking in turns, Kidwell and Sheppard—who also created the play—find a register a touch beyond reality and a step short of satire as they careen between classroom and personal life and historical fantasy. Sometimes it’s not clear what is private and what is happening before an auditorium of presumably-gaping thirteen-year-olds. Sometimes it’s not clear what is real and what is roleplay. Sometimes it’s not clear whether they like each other, or are playing a long game of utter loathing, enacted through puppets, an oversized slave in a giant red skirt, and sexual humiliation on the auction block. This slippery uncertainty is all intentional, and skillfully balanced to keep you off-kilter, but never too actively confused.
It’s easy to shrug and say that lacking the US’s direct legacy of chattel slavery, UK audiences will miss the sense of personal, individual guilt and complicity that makes Caroline and Stuart’s spiral into a strange, psycho-sexual madness make a strange kind of sense. By the end of the play, Steven Dufala’s set is wrecked and littered with unavoidable proof of all that happened, even as the two teachers try to call it lesson learned and move on.
But I think the problem is really that the pointedly American trappings, the historical references that are likely missed even with the plot-appropriate summary of the workings of the underground railroad at the start of the play, make it too easy to imagine that it’s a purely American problem to carry the guilt of your ancestors’ crimes, the rage of their suffering, in your very bones, to have it seep into your thoughts and your heart and your mind in ways you can’t control or wholly understand.
Most European countries had a part to play in such crimes—in slavery specifically, but also in their own colonies and cruelties and slaughters. It’s okay now, of course. It got better. We’ve learned to look on the bright side of all those bad things. At least the slaves weren’t here. It was all so very, very far away.
Underground Railroad Game is on at Traverse Theatre until 26th August. Find out more here.