Underground Railroad Game (5 stars)

This article is from 2018

Underground Railroad Game

credit: Ben Arons Photography

Tackling racism and control in audacious comedy

Soho Theatre and Ars Nova's show is wilfully perverse and unforgettable. It's unwieldy yet beautiful; erotic, but teetering on ridiculousness. And it feels like a feverish Dixieland hallucination.

After the controversy surrounding Childish Gambino's explosive 'This Is America' video, it would seem that media representations of slavery are always going to be problematic. So this production is not only timely, it feels necessary in opening up a dialogue around race relations, with particular emphasis on historical distortion through clichés and bad art.

The piece initially seems like a frivolous parody of patronising educational tedium, presided over by excessively enthusiastic school teachers with rictus grins. 'Look under your chairs', they beam, à la Oprah Winfrey, and sure enough, a surprise gift awaits.

But then, the curtains part and Jennifer Kidwell's African-American slave stereotype, in an enormous bustle skirt, offers her body to Scott R Sheppard's white soldier. And all hell breaks loose.

Who is fucking who? Where do boundaries lie, in terms of depictions of eroticised black bodies and slack-jawed white 'crackers'? The sins of the past inform the present.

Words are not without weight, nor can they be reclaimed, the pair suggest. Kidwell and Sheppard push stereotypes and language beyond discomfort, force until broken, until the room is utterly silenced. Images of dominance and submission roleplay are consistently undermined by humour as the duo, back in teacher mode with perky smiles, demand a rousing chorus of 'Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory'.

Then they simply turn, seemingly no longer in character, and chillingly stare and stare, reminding everyone of their complicity.

Traverse, until 26 Aug (not 13, 20), times vary, £21.50 (£16.50).

Underground Railroad Game

  • 5 stars

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Shepard's Obie-award-winning two-hander about race relations in the USA.