Review: Underground Railroad Game, Malthouse Theatre

Arresting and unmissable production ripe for our times.
Review: Underground Railroad Game, Malthouse Theatre

Photo credit: Ben Arons

There’s something necessarily explosive about the Ars Nova production of Underground Railroad Game that seems to come out of nowhere and beat ignorance, passivity and voluntary participation in structural racism into the ground. Or, at the very least, it gives you a mind-blowing hit of electrifying, thought-provoking theatre that hopefully pulls all of us all out of our collective amnesia by correcting the story of race though a much less comfortable lens than we’re accustomed to receiving.

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On one level the production is an all-American history tale of one aspect of the American Civil War, but it also has a prescience about US politics now, and an urgency that speaks to us directly about ignorance, racism and cultural appropriation in our own dark and shameful colonial history.

What begins as a re-enactment of the Underground Railroad story about American slaves escaping to Canada and Nova Scotia with the aid of abolitionists quickly shifts into a present day exploration of sexual politics between a black woman and a white man and all the messy, uncomfortable terrain that deeply unresolved territory contains. The shifts in time, juxtaposed with the historical vignettes, build to a conflict-filled climax revealing the malignant truth dwelling ominously just beneath the surface of our so-called acceptance of each other as equals and our unwillingness to accept the truth that is self evident: that white cultural, social and historical narratives still dominate and permeate every aspect of the way we experience our lives at the direct expense of all people of colour. That the white saviour experience clouds the black slave experience and dissipates the horror of it.

Brilliantly performing as teachers, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Shepard do what any teachers do in any classroom: they endeavour to engage students in active, experiential learning that invites them to participate in learning, rather than passively absorbing information. Here, the audience becomes the students involved in a history game; a game that helps us gain insight and understanding of the Civil War and what it meant to be either a Union soldier, or a Confederate in a story about the Underground Railroad. Ingenious co-creation from both performers here never misses a beat. It is astonishingly well paced – slipping seamlessly from historical contexts to contemporary discourse on popular culture and social mores in America today.

There are delightful segues from each teacher with instructions to help us towards clearer understandings of the topic using effective pedagogical tools and we become divided. Once that happens, the rules of the game can be deconstructed and decolonised with the precision of the Maya Angelou poem, 'I rise' or an essay by James Baldwin, whose work was documented in I Am Not Your Negro. That is entirely the point. Underground Railroad Game is all about experientially and bluntly exposing this gross imbalance of power inherent in American race relations, and exposing the real cultural and social myths, the disadvantage and prejudice propagated against people of colour that have existed since slavery and long after emancipation into the now.

There are tense, twist-of-fate scenes straight out of an episode of TV show Roots, where our heroine tries to escape being recaptured by the Confederates, contrasted with the modern relationship where every insidious and privileged patriarchal white male assumption about dating a black woman is deconstructed with such wit, charm and alacrity that I could barely draw breath between laughing and gasping for air.

The use of symbolism by OBIE award-winning director Taibi Magar is utterly assured, and works successfully with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design to great effect. All the production team's work is cleverly executed, including Oona Curley's seductive lighting. From the re-contextualised ‘Fred and Ginger’ styled musical silhouettes to heighten our awareness of the whitewashing of American culture, to the use of Negro spirituals like ,Wade in the Water' in the slave transformations and reclamation of power by teacher Caroline, this is groundbreaking theatre that is very much needed right now. It’s a vehicle that explores a divided nation and the legacy of that. The actors flex their considerable muscles from start to finish and it is remarkable to see the range and depth of their skill as the duo transform effortlessly into a number of characters. The actors are so in sync with each other that at times they recall the compelling choreography of DV8 physical theatre. Simultaneously, they are also acutely painful to watch – like having a tooth extracted. The writing is top shelf and hits all the right notes in the contrasts between our assumptions about black people and their subsequent exploitation.

A must-see production that is arresting, vital and important. There is ample nudity and sexual content but none of it is gratuitous. It’s all part of the game.

4 ½ stars: ★★★★☆

The ARS NOVA Production of Underground Railroad Game
Creators and performers: Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Shepard – with Lightning Rod Special
Director: Taibi Magar
Production Design: Tilly Grimes
Scenic Design: Steven Dufala
Lighting Design: Oona Curley
Sound Design: Mikaal Sulaiman
Production Stage Manager: Lisa McGinn
Assistant Stage Manager: Natalie Hratko

Malthouse Theatre, Southbank
30 January to 17 February 2019

Melinda Keyte

Monday 4 February, 2019

About the author

A writer, theatre maker and performing arts education specialist.