FringeReview UK 2018
Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard who create this piece with the support of the Ars Nova team with Lightning Rod Special, are directed by Taibi Magar. Steven Dafala’s set deconstructs itself, some period costumes are sumptuous despite what they reveal. Oona Curley creates evocative faux-lighting for 1863 scenes, spectral spot-lighting, and the garish full-on when apparently shrouded from onlooking graders. Mikaal Sulaiman deploys 60s anodyne hits and the crump of reality. Tilly Grimes is production manager, responsible for costumes and detail. Ryan Bourque’s fight direction is unnerving. Till October 13th.
A barn, summer 1863. A frightened woman, Jennifer Kidwell, is dodging Scott R Sheppard’s warning slaver. He promises savage retribution if she doesn’t give herself up, wherever she is. He’s only feinting though in case of a posse and is in fact her Quaker saviour.
Then suddenly we’re the ninth-graders and they’re our teachers. Welcome to the Underground Railroad Game where we find a grey or blue soldier under each seat, and our now-hatted generals guide us to whether in getting slaves across and winning points we can re-affirm or rewrite history. Yes it’s super-tacky and in a time of Trump probably more enlightened than many schools.
But that’s not it of course, the cringe is just the start. Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard of Ars Nova with Lightning Rod Special, are directed by Taibi Magar to places no-one would dare think they’d venture. The scenery’s a school version of a barn interior, then class room with curtains screening off the staff resource room behind. Steven Dafala’s set deconstructs itself, some period costumes are sumptuous despite what they reveal. Tilly Grimes the production manager seems to have costume input. There’s certainly a dress coup. Grimes or Dafala’s responsible for the packets of soldiers under each audience seat. I don’t think any were taken home; people are encouraged to deposit them should they be clinging on to a Union blue or a ‘reb’ grey as they leave
Oona Curley creates evocative faux-lighting for 1863 scenes, spectral spot-lighting, and the garish full-on when apparently shrouded from onlooking graders. Mikaal Sulaiman deploys 60s anodyne hits and the crump of reality. And Ryan Bourque’s fight direction is unnverving.
What happens there is one of the more remarkable deconstructions of character seen from the U. S. in may years. This tradition’s not the patient naturalism of playwrights like Annie Baker, Audrey Cefaly, Emily Schwend, Nina Segal and the slightly faster-paced Amy Herzog – who all enjoyed British premieres this year. If anything this company recall TEAM whose Mission Drift (NT Shed, 2013) and RoosElvis (Royal Court, 2015) herald a far more radically-infused narrative, and picaresque inventiveness. Even they though are left in polite eddies compared to this. For sheer kinetic explosiveness there’s just one play – Clare Barron’s Dance Nation – this one bears any kinship with. Otherwise it’s the most radical piece of American theatre I’ve seen, and certainly the bravest.
It’s not enough the class is lectured, and that we get excerpts of the couple’s growing attraction in scenes between classes, it’s that dream and dare, sexual permission and language spiral back to what identities the protagonists can tear from each other.
There’s scenes that bleed seamlessly from what’s ostensibly a class mock-up to projection or private after-class encounters. So the depiction of a house slave regally mounted on some massive dress – visually it’s spectacular – unpeels to an explicit sexual scene. and there’s far more of it. Whatever you might think might happen to the Union now American flag,.. well, Ars Nova have come first.
Kidwell and Sheppard courageously take apart their personas, filleting permission with complicity, so that Kidwell’s declared attraction peels away Sheppard’s persona to reveal a man who with his fellow frat boys tried to sleep with a girl of every ethnicity when at college. ‘I love your shamelessness’ Kidwell tells him. It’s stripping several veneers at once. By parodic indirection they’re re-enacting old aches of imperialist assumption. So Sheppard’s declaration that he fantasises about Kidwell’s sweeping out for him is only touching the full extent of what’s planned.
But it’s Kidwell who both reins Sheppard in, sees when at a crucial point he goes off the underground rails as it were when a abominable teen insult scrawled on a ‘Safehouse’ placard sets them both off. Initially in front of the class; a fourth wall of imagined flinch is taken as far as possible.
Emotions quickly escalate, turn in on themselves and then an extraordinary climax is worked out in the resources room. The switchback of sudden appalled recognition, humiliation and reverse are dizzying and eviscerating. The end, a return to 1863 but enacted with puppets, seems a traumatised epilogue on everything. But is it?
Kidwell’s performance is electrifying, from regality to flirty sassy teacher, to sudden pain, outrage, and icy ferocity. Kidwell’s vocal range too is distinctive. Sheppard is within his liberal carapace capable of more than the range of nervous or preppy liberal noises: an angry naked persona ranges from out-of-control self-betrayal to stripped humiliation and bizarre arousal, with deep shame. Sheppard excels at this in particular.
Underground Railroad Game asks the very dangerous assumptions of who’s just who’s been liberated: by dwelling on fissures of identity, racial oppression and generations of cosy cultural assumption. It’s not simply white liberal veneer, but black experience, both of complicity and control, of empowerment. That’s partly from allowing the apparent liberal enough rope to hang their liberalism, with the permission of revenge. Defining this through the obvious though still powerful white male/black female sexual role can prove devastatingly, literally seductive.
No-one escapes in seventy-five minutes that seem exhaustingly, mesmerizingly longer. How far are we slaves of the past? Conceived in 2013, Underground Railroad Game stirred warnings despite nearly five years of a black President. Now, with a POTUS convicted of exploiting black workers and promoting white supremacism, that’s not simply alarm; it’s a present danger of being borne back ceaselessly into the past.