First Nighter: Ars Nova's "Underground Railroad Game" Perhaps More Gamey Than Game

Since whether we want to or not, we seen to be living in Donald J. Trump's world, we may have just been handed the production we deserve. It's called Underground Railroad Game and has checked in at Ars Nova. Not that the creators Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard intended such a worrisome result.

They have what is an admirable purpose in mind and base it on a fifth-grade exercise Sheppard underwent as part of a teacher's approach to educate her charges in the Civil War. She divided the class into two groups--Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers--and had the former group attempt to move runaway slaves above the Mason-Dixon line and had the latter group capture the fugitives and return them to their owners. Along the way those fleeing were able to escape being caught when they reached so-called safe houses.

Sheppard and Kidwell apparently look askance at the creative teaching aid, but perhaps it wasn't such an objectionable way to instigate interest in history among the young. These days, some might suggest that bringing students to a hip-hop musical as a method of firing imaginations sounds questionable, too. Yet Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton may be the single most important motivation we now have for a revival of interest in studying history.

For their part, Kidwell and Sheppard have shaped a 75-minute piece taking on the pernicious persistence of racism in American culture and the unending degradation in which it results. To be sure, they earn appreciative nods for that at a time when headlines ballyhooing shootings in cities across country and responses to them attest to the validity of the thesis.

It's the way they go about addressing the problem that might raise the hackles of many spectators. (N.B.: Revealing them in this review probably qualifies as an extended spoiler, so proceed--or not--accordingly.) For a script that lurches between and among many twists, Kidwell and Sheppard begin when she, as an escaping slave in shabby Civil war dress, sneaks into a barn owned by an abolitionist, whom he plays.

Enacting this scene for a few introductory minutes, they suddenly shed their period dress to explain that they're really present to facilitate a learn-about-the-Civil-War-game in which the audience will be divided in two (determined by the color of the small plastic soldiers they find under their seats.) Depending on the tally each side then acquires while moving dolls representing Union soldiers, Confederate soldiers or slaves, an eventual winning side will be announced.

For those having read directly above--or simply have taken in the Underground Railroad Game title--and think the enterprise is an immersive, audience-participation event, there's no reason to tremble. From then on, Kidwell and Sheppard assume the roles of, respectively, Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart of the Hanover, Pennsylvania Middle School faculty.

They speak to--and sometimes chastise--the audience when not stepping into scenes meant to illustrate the base behavior to which continuingly rampant racism descends. Not a few of the pop-up sequences are hardly what any board of education would allow, no matter how liberal. But that objection is neither here nor there, as Kidwell and Sheppard have patently designed things for a mature(?) audience.

Along the way, Sheppard becomes outraged at the audience-as-students while holding up a sign that specifies a safeway house on which someone in the "class" has written "niggerlover." At one point, the frequently drawn curtains open on Tilly Grimes and Steven Dufala's adaptable set to reveal Kidwell standing sideways in an exaggerated Civil War outfit. In no time, Sheppard, worshipping her, has removed her bodice and is suckling her breasts. That's until he clambers under the skirt supposedly to suckle her elsewhere. At another point, Kidwell as a type of auctioneer humiliates Sheppard, representing a slave on auction, by having him strip naked and endure her swiping him with a long ruler.

Yes, Kidwell and Sheppard make their overall engagé point. They make it with such vigor and conviction that it occurred to me some audience members might be thinking how brilliant the folderol was. Later, I read the promotion material provided to the press and found a confirming quote from a Philadelphia critic who labeled the production--developed by the local Lightning Rod Special Company and directed by Taibi Magar--a "brilliant theatrical commentary on contemporary race relations."

I leave it to those who adamantly consider Underground Railroad Game brilliant to describe at greater length its brilliance. As for me, I believe there's a thin line between commenting on vulgarity and being straightforwardly vulgar. In the instance of Underground Railroad Game, I'm convinced the line has been crossed from comment-on to example-of.

Kidwell and Sheppard are aware of the possibility. In "A Note From the Creators," they indicate their concern. They write--just wait for the highfalutin phrase "interrogate the mythos" and the highfalutin word "narrativize,"--"If we interrogate the mythos of the Underground Railroad we uncover an apparent need to make systemic exploitation, degradation and objectification palatable. Why is it that we love to narrativize ourselves in ways that propagate the very violence we proclaim to upend?" Why, indeed?