When Scott Sheppard was in middle school outside Gettysburg, PA, his class participated in one of those wrong-from-the-start teaching exercises that indelibly mark our formative years. This was the “Underground Railroad Game” – an oxymoron for sure – whose purpose was to give preteens the opportunity to defend or rewrite history as soldiers in the Union and Confederate Armies, as they tried to save or capture as many “slave” dolls their history teacher could hide throughout the school. The premise is utterly ridiculous (what exactly were the anticipated learning outcomes?), and the experience probably became notorious among students as that crazy dumb role-playing thing you had to do during lunch period.
But here we are in 2016: 15 decades after the Civil War, 48 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, 24 months after Ferguson, MO, 1 week after Charlotte, NC, and 3 days after the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. If you live in the US, you are either participating in the “race conversation” or avoiding it. Sheppard, who is now an actor, and actress Jennifer Kidwell are having that conversation in their show, a re-enactment of the Underground Railroad Game of years ago. And this time, there are real benefits to take away.
Because when I say they’re “having the conversation,” I’m not just repeating a well-worn catchphrase. I mean they are really sifting through the speech we use, black and white, to talk about ourselves and each other in this country founded on the principle that all men are created equal but enriched by slavery, having fought the deadliest war in its history to end that practice but still struggling with its seemingly ineradicable socioeconomic consequences that are erupting, again, into violence. And they are using all the languages we humans have at our disposal: physical, intellectual, rational, emotional. They’re testing words and ideas, they’re getting frustrated, they’re trying to understand, they’re in love one minute, they’re screaming and fighting the next. The tension can be thick enough to cut with a knife and the energy white hot.
Sheppard and Kidwell play Teacher Stuart and Teacher Caroline, respectively. One is a lanky, dimpled white guy who always looks comfortable in relaxed denim and wears his Confederate hat like a natural. The other is a small, muscular African-American woman, whose suits and pumps clash terribly with her Union hat. Neither is the simple sum of his or her parts, but neither is this show, whose ostensible lesson about the efforts of a Quaker man to help an enslaved woman escape from the South, goes neck-deep into the roiling waters of semantics when these two become romantically involved.
But if Stuart and Caroline are tempted to think that their interracial couple could be an example to anyone observing, they’ll be proved wrong. In one particular scene, after Stuart has, shall I say, drunk at the source of Caroline’s power over him, he wonders, as perhaps history teachers do, if their lives have “advanced history.” His tone is self-congratulatory. It meets with her outright disdain. In another scene, Caroline and Stuart begin to engage in a sex game but when she forces Stuart to stand naked on a box in front of us, it suddenly becomes the humiliating public auction of a slave, his physical parts closely examined and factored into the price.
At the same time, the writing is consistently, searingly funny, especially when it reveals exactly what the characters most want to hide. Soon every tableaux and phrase looks or sounds like a double entendre. Despite the pretext of the “game,” Sheppard and Kidwell work on many registers, so that you have to watch and listen very carefully – “with your thinking cap on,” as teachers like to say – to catch all their meanings (and I’m not sure that I did).
The form is far simpler than the content. We’re in a school auditorium prepared with a cardboard wall / barn door for the historical re-enactment part of the lesson. There, after being divided into teams, we will learn the rules, watch as the teachers enact some choice scenes in their fictional narrative and receive updates on our progress (dolls caught or rescued = points earned). The premise is effective for building our engagement in the story as we get high-fived by Teacher Stuart, scolded by Teacher Caroline and prompted to yell out the school’s fight motto (though that’s as far as the interaction goes). The real learning comes when, as their “students,” we start to stare, even gape sometimes, as the adults try and fail in this war of words, shared and disputed histories, deliberate and unintentional offenses, real and imagined fears, to be together or maybe only reach détente.
Sheppard may have been handed the idea by his middle school teacher, but he and Kidwell make this Underground Railroad Game a guide to the times we are living in. The lessons have to be teased out, from the hagiography of our “heroic” past to white guilt, but unlike Sheppard’s history class, this “Game” is more powerful for not trying to be anything more than what it is: in this case, that all-important conversation, in big, bold strokes. A+ for ideas, effort and for making us laugh, cathartically, all the better to reflect and learn.