Review: Underground Railroad Game ****

Theatre

Underground Railroad Game

Traverse Theatre, v15

Various (ends 26 August, not Mondays, not 25)

**** (4 stars)

Oh my! I’m not sure what I was expecting with this show, but it certainly wasn’t what I found in front of me – and at close range, because I and my gammy knees had been admitted by the accessible route and given a seat blessedly not on the very front row, but more than close enough to what was going on [and coming off!] on stage… I guess the one positive I can take from a too-close encounter with full-frontal male nudity, is that I really do prefer relationships with women!

The Underground Railroad, for those of you who don’t know, was an organisation which assisted escaped slaves to travel from the South of America across the Mason-Dixon Line into the freedom of the Union in the North and to Canada. Abolitionists, who included many Quakers, provided safe house refuges for the escapees and helped them on their way to the next safe house. The show began with one such [black] female escapee looking for shelter in a barn, only to be discovered by a [white] farmer: screaming in terror, it took him some time, and the use of the secret password – Sojourner – to calm and reassure her that he was a Quaker and would help her to the nearest town, Hanover, which was near the Mason-Dixon Line.

The two then named themselves Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart, and welcomed us to Hanover Middle School, where we were about to start several weeks’ immersion in the American Civil War. We were divided into Union and Confederate soldiers and given the project either of [Union] getting slave dolls in the safe house in each classroom into safe houses in the other four classrooms, when they would have reached Canada or [Confederate] capturing the escapees to return them to slavery. Points would be awarded for each captured or freed slave – which army would win the war this time?

So far, so good: fairly simple, quite amusing – Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard were excellent as the teachers: eagle-eyed for any lack of attention or misbehaviour, and in a very cheery American way whipping up our enthusiasm for the exciting few weeks ahead of us. As they were addressing us, they kept catching each other’s eye – was there something going on here, we wonder? Suddenly they were dancing – a full Strictly routine to Misty – after which, walking along the sidewalk after a cinema trip, they gradually moved into full flirting mode, which at first went well…

And that’s where it started to get increasingly uncomfortable – at least for me, though many people found the whole thing hilarious. I wonder what the gender and skin colour were of those who were laughing loudest? Quite apart from the nudity and pretty graphic enactments of various sex acts, much of the language was uncomfortably near abuse, as were the humiliation and stereotypically racial attitudes and language: certainly much of the action was violent and at times abusive. American reviews of the show called it “in all ways sensational” [New York Times] and “fearlessly, ferociously uninhibited, and wildly entertaining“ [New Yorker] and the audience today laughed a lot and gave the actors a standing ovation: but someone near me was overheard wondering whether the Americans behind her had got the point at all… were they simply applauding nudity and simulated sex, or cheering a no-holds-barred exploration of our assumptions around race, gender, and sexual politics?

This is a profoundly uncomfortable show, magnificently performed by its creators: if you can get a ticket, go and make up your own mind…

Mary Woodward