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An opening scene from Underground Railroad Game featuring Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard (all photos by Ben Arons)

The writer Kathryn Schulz recently reviewed two new fiction books that take as their subjects the Underground Railroad — a term that first appeared in the 1840s in reference to an ad hoc system of individuals and small groups that shuttled slaves in the antebellum, slave-owning South to either so-called free states or to Canada. Schulz writes, “we adore stories of individuals who fight their way to actual or psychological freedom.” This is part of the reason for the recent uptick in interest in the Underground Railroad: last year, Eric Foner published a history of the Railroad’s operations in New York City; this year, there have been two novels published and a television series about a group of runaway slaves, the Macon Seven, has aired.

More, Harriet Tubman has been chosen to appear on the $20 bill, and the Park Service will erect its first national monument for the Railroad in Cambridge, Maryland, near Tubman’s birthplace. And these are relatively easy stories to follow, as Schulz says, “on the Underground Railroad, geography is plot: the South represents iniquity and bondage, the North enlightenment and freedom.” But there is no clear North and South on the compass of racialized human desire that is inferred in the play Underground Railroad Game, currently at Ars Nova, in which race constitutes a key marker for who needs to be rescued, how that rescue may be effected, and how it is likely to fail.

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard playing slave and rescuer in Underground Railroad Game

The play starts off by providing the audience with a dramatic scene from what might be a historical instance in the operation of the Underground Railroad. With emotionally stilted dialogue that’s meant to convey late 19th century melodrama — and evoke the countless movies heroicizing white folks who attempt to save runaway slaves — a white man who is Quaker finds a black woman slave and, instead of turning her in, hides her, keeping her safe from prowling slave hunters, and then they sexually connect. The tropes set up here continue throughout the course of the performance: black and white, male and female depicted as opposites that infer and insist on the other — the definition of a dialectic relation, in which the master is only a master because of, and in tandem with, the existence of the slave.

The play’s recurring motifs also include secrets, racial fetishes, and a sense of duty. For example, the fact that the character Teacher Stuart (Sheppard) has become emotionally involved with Teacher Caroline (Kidwell) remains hidden for some time, and when their relationship is revealed, it’s shown to be deeply inflected by a fixation on the other’s racialized otherness, though that otherness is also treated as something to be protected from strangers’ contempt. I was already laughing out loud at the first scene, and in the ensuing meta-discursive treatment of that moment of cultural encounter mediated by earnest desire, there were lots of opportunities to laugh. The piece is fun and treacherous at the same time, like playing with a kitten growing into a cat and testing the strength of its claws on you.

A scene from Underground Railroad Game

The Quaker and slave morph into teachers who address the audience as an elementary school class, whom they want to instruct in the  fractious history of the US Civil War and the tortured political conflict afterward. The teachers’ fear that some students will miss out makes them earnestly desperate to break down that history into small, bite-sized pieces. Crucially, the playwrights — who are also the performers, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard — recognize that they are delving into the typical, overused Hollywood trope of the white man rescuing the black woman (see, among many other examples, Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball), so they overturn it. They also move through scenes that parody 1950s and ’60s musicals about the hurdles to intimate connection and true love. Their shifting characters are, in the logic of the play, truly teachers. They show us that the caricatures of our popular culture inheritance don’t equip us to understand or clearly see each other.

In the course of instructing the audience about the Underground Railroad, Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart inevitably encounter racism, but that’s not the revelation. Racism exists in the US and is endemic — most of us know this. The revelation is that an underground railroad exists in the deep pathways that race has cut and carved out in our scholastic, professional, and, most importantly here, our sexual lives. This black woman is not surprised by racism, not cowed by it, and not defined by it. But in the culminating scene, when the teachers make a game of turning the stereotypical power hierarchy upside down — he is naked for her to visually inspect and then whip with a belt, while asking him to repeat the dirty word he’s been called (“nigger lover”) — she is fully alienated finally by the limitation of his desire. Teacher Stuart ultimately reveals he doesn’t want a full, female, human body; he wants her sign of blackness, so he repeats its verbal cue (“nigger lover”) until he orgasms, while she stands not five feet away, aghast that love so ardently declared can be so trite. It’s uncomfortable to see others meet their fate so nose-to-nose, and that discomfort hints at how terrifying it must be to experience that yourself: to want the characters and caricatures so we can play with them and not be conquered by them, but then face the ugly reality that we’ve already lost to them, before we even took the field.

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard as Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart in Underground Railroad Game

Underground Railroad Game demonstrates that more than being  convoluted, desire is also fugitive, appearing here in a treasured photograph, winking out and reappearing in fetishized objects, or in the naughty games of power and dominance we play. Desire is complicated;  racialized desire — that is, desire for another presented to us as forbidden — is perilous. Even if we are genuinely intrigued by difference and the possibilities of bridging our gaps, we have to deal with what truly excites and entices us, and we are not in complete control of that. We wage so many battles to direct and shape our desire for our love objects. We fight our families, our cultures, our lovers, and ourselves over who we love and how to express that love. It’s not that we lose out to our own desires, but that our desires are shaped by the culture around us before we are fully able to understand them or articulate what they are, so we are often meeting each other underground, perhaps on the road to satisfaction, but in the dark.

Underground Railroad Game continues at Ars Nova (511 West 54th Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through November 11.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...