Slave master cum Dominatrix. Teacher with ruler cum Dominatrix.
Larger than life portrayal of the white man’s black mammy.
Mammy as in mammary gland. As in wet nurse.
Shadow puppetry inside the Mammy’s big skirt.
The surprise under your seat.
What does one do with an experience that cannot be fully processed?
On April 28, 2018 at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, this reviewer saw the Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard as directed by Taibi Magar. A powerful play like no other, and possibly one that can only be acted by its creators Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game begins heroically with a Quaker man saving a black woman from those who are hunting her. She is a runaway slave during the Civil War. She has made it to Hanover, Pennsylvania.
Hanover is where the genesis of this play began for Scott Sheppard. In his fifth-grade class, his teachers had the students play the underground railroad game. Quickly the Wooly Mammoth audience is drawn into this game. The audience members are instructed to reach below their seats on a leg of their chairs to find a small packet. Inside the envelope is a small plastic soldier either in blue or gray.
Thus, the audience members are identified as either Union (blue) or Confederate (gray) soldiers. More instructions followed and the good-natured DC audience participated. The location of the play and who the characters are stabilize in the town of Hanover and in the teacher roles Kidwell and Sheppard play. As the action progresses, the teachers—she, black, and he, white— fall in love.
Then the scene shifts to a surreal larger-than-life black mammy who nurses an eager white male. This is followed by shadow puppetry under the mammy’s oversized skirt. The audience doesn’t know exactly what is happening but pretty soon, the mammy is in over-drive sexual ecstasy which may be the real thing. This scene, as jaw-dropping as it is, hardly prepares the viewer for the bedroom scene where racial roles are reversed. The white man is put on the auction block, just as black enslaved men were—completely naked. Then the slave master, in this case, teacher Caroline, smacks teacher Stuart’s buttocks until his skin turns red. She also violates him by using the ruler to examine his penis.
The level of discomfort this reviewer had at being a witness to such a scene was similar to how she felt in DC’s Holocaust Museum where you start at the top of the building and cannot leave until you have visited every floor and every horror. What Kidwell and Sheppard achieve is remarkable. No one wants to relive the evils of the past but until one thoroughly understands what took place and how it felt, racism has a way, as it does now under the Trump administration, of resurfacing.
So, what one does with an experience that cannot be fully processed is to shine the light of day on it. To acknowledge that something horrifying happened and to never forget the details is how one comes to terms.
The baring-it-all theme of Underground Railroad Game is somewhat like Wooley Mammoth’s production in 2017 of An Octoroon. However, An Octoroon now seems tame compared to Underground Railroad Game. Kudos to the outgoing Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz for having the courage to bring such plays to Washington, DC, which harbored its share of slaves and slave masters.
Underground Railroad tour began in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2015 and moved to Off-Broadway in New York City at Ars Nova in September 2016. The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game tour schedule includes bookings at Curious Theatre Company in Denver, Colorado (June 14-July 1, 2018), Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland (August 2-26, 2018), and Soho Theatre in London, England (September 4-29, 2018). This reviewer will be curious to learn how this play will fare internationally.