WILLIAMSTOWN — The opening scenes of "Underground Railroad Game" are so familiar they are almost comforting; some educational historical melodrama about a Quaker abolitionist saving a runaway slave who is on her way to freedom. It's one way of talking about our history of racial oppression and violence, but you know it's wholly inadequate for describing the scale of the horror of generations of chattel slavery. Getting us to think — and dare to laugh — about why is the play's proposition.
The scene then moves to a classroom in what could be the present, with two teachers, one white, another black, who are beginning a project to teach their kids about the Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape from the South. It begins as a game, but it becomes clear fast it is not. The play's creators and performers, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, keep pushing, using elements of sketch comedy, visual imagery and physical performance to force a conversation about race, power, and sexuality.
"How we frame stories and how that framing then carries into our present-day lives," Kidwell says. "Decisions we make about how we tell the stories of the past inform the way we relate to each other in the present."
Sheppard describes their work as "a distinctly American piece of trickster theater," which will be performed for one show only Thursday at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College. "Underground Railroad Game" was much talked about and praised on its premiere in New York in 2016, winning the 2017 Obie Award for Best New American Theatre Work and was named to several best-of lists that year.
Reached by phone from New Orleans where she is working on her next project, Kidwell says a lot of the piece was informed by their own observations, including the irony of how hard and inadequate it is to use language to talk about a subject that so deeply shaped America. She recalls hearing a museum guide at a portrait gallery in Philadelphia, where she lives, who grew tongue-tied about describing black slaves.
"There is an awkwardness of talking about something that actually happened," she says. "But it happened, so we have to talk about it."
Exploring that awkwardness wherever it leads is the thread of the performance. It looks at the ways race and power work and how sexuality and desire shape identity and how we think about each other. It is not a piece that holds back — and to that end the '62 Center warns that the performance may not be suitable for younger audiences.
"This piece functions in a very competitive way, and it was written in a very aggressive way, purposefully," Sheppard says in a phone interview from New York. "That was the theatrical engine, what would it be like to win [this game], and can it be fair, is there such a thing as fairness. With that conceit we are able to do lots of bad things and break rules and go to scary places in the spirit of unearthing those skeletons."
The heart of the play, the game itself, is based on a project Sheppard participated in as a fifth-grader in Hanover, Pennsylvania, a small town not far from Gettysburg and the Mason-Dixon Line. As part of a thematic unit about the Civil War, the whole grade was divided into color-coded "Union" or "Confederate" sides. One element was a game in which "Union" students had to move dolls representing "slaves" from one safe box to another on their way to "Canada," while the other side tried to catch them.
"To be completely honest, it was ridiculously fun," he admits. "Instead of doing math drills we were in this sneaky, interactive game. There was this sense that this unit had taken over the entire school."
He later came to understand the flawed method and assumptions behind the game, and the reality that when you learn history you often are learning only someone's perspective on it.
The opportunity to explore the experience came up years later, when Sheppard and Kidwell met as students at the Pig Iron School of Advanced Performance Training in Philadelphia. It was a small program with only just over a dozen students. They got to know one another through assignments and exercises.
Pig Iron is based on the technique of French actor and clown Jacques Lecoq, whose method of physical acting requires training the body to do much of the work, and relies on improvisation to uncover the story. The two began hanging out after school and working out their ideas.
"We created new things and cut things away, created new things and cut things away," Sheppard says. "And three years later we had this piece of theater."
Kidwell said the approach brought out the best in both of them, and her ongoing interest in the possibilities of collaboration. She describes her own process as based on images rather than text. "What if we saw this thing, let's try to build material around this image," she says. "This is all coming from the body and experiences, and thing I've seen or things that strike me as amusing or ironic or pathetic."
They were aware of the sensitivity of the issues, and Sheppard says that being a white performer tackling these issues head-on was part of "the dare of the piece." "The goal was to bring both our ideas and perspectives into this thing, whether that meant collision or compromise," he says. "The question of appropriation was put in the pot."
But they tried very hard to keep it funny. Kidwell describes how different audiences respond differently and that some jokes seem to be only for her. But those different reactions are a valuable part of the process. "If you go and see some people laughing and others being horrified by something ... there can be a conversation about why," she says.
Sheppard says the humor has a purpose.
"We use it as a tenderizer, so people can open up and move and laugh and let the rest of the piece hit them in a different way," Sheppard says. "If you approach people with a hammer visible, they aren't going to open up to you."
That bold humor and fearless facing of immediate, urgent issues earned the play an immediate response when it premiered at Ars Nova in New York in September 2016. Their premiere run also included a show after the election, which seemed to change the national conversation.
"It changed almost every line of the play and how it felt, and I think the audience came out feeling pummeled," Sheppard says. "It was pretty intense, but on the other hand, where were we before the election?"
Sheppard says the play isn't necessarily pessimistic, but a necessary conversation for where theater is at the moment. "Our [American] theater is far too optimistic and filled with good intentions," he says. "To some people our piece may come across as pessimistic, but I think that is just a pendulum swing because we have unwittingly moved far too much to delusion and false optimism."
Kidwell says "Underground Railroad Game" doesn't answer any questions, but turning away isn't an option.
"I don't think we offer any solution or been interested in saying what you should do," she says. "But I will say I am increasingly dissatisfied with the response of 'ah, it's so hard.' People are dying. It's hard to say to someone who lost someone 'yeah, that's unfair.' That's no way to address grief and systemic violence."