Underground Railroad Game has been presented at the festival by Soho Theatre at Traverse. Having been received well in the States this production by Ars Nova has arrived for the Fringe and is already racking up the Fringe First awards and many complimentary reviews.
There are many reasons it has been receiving such acclaim from the press and it might be to do with the fact the British stage doesn’t often tackle race relations on our stages. This production addresses race, sex and politics from three different storylines – personal, professional and historical – in a two-handed comedy that pushes discussions to the limit.
The show is set up as a classroom where two teachers are instructing their pupils on an immersive history lesson that will take place in their school. The black teacher Caroline, played by Jennifer Kidwell, and the white male teacher Stuart, played by Scott R Sheppard, brief their charges on an overview of the historical political landscape of the American civil war. We reach under our chairs, taking on the role of their students, to find different coloured soldiers – our initiation into either the Republican or Confederate army. The play takes many opportunities to step back into the past where Caroline embodies a slave attempting to escape her bonds through use of the Underground Railroad system whilst Stuart becomes an abolitionist Quaker who helps her on her way. In both the historical reenactment and the school storyline a sexual tension starts to become apparent between Kidwell and Sheppard and a domineering cruel streak emerges in the present day. It becomes hard to tell who is punishing who as Caroline punishes Stuart in the bedroom to the point of uncomfortable abuse whilst Stuart’s unassuming casual sexism and racism shocks.
Taibi Magar has worked hard to make the script carry as much weight as possible whilst still remaining enjoyable and comedic. Kidwell and Sheppard were powerful in their roles and had the audience on the edge of their seats as we watched the drama unfold. I felt the only negative was a slight tendency for things to be taken too far as in the case of Sheppard’s nudity, an uncomfortable situation that took its point to the extreme.