Underground Railroad Game (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Posted: August 14, 2018 in Theatre

Creators: Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special      Director: Taibi Magar


The small town of Hanover sits on what was, during the American Civil War, the Union side of the Mason-Dixon line. Over on the Confederate side, black slaves would enter the “underground railroad” to escape to freedom through Hanover and, hopefully, onward to Canada.

In the modern day, two teachers, a black woman, Caroline (Jennifer Kidwell) and a white man, Stewart (Scott R Sheppard) are teaching history at Hanover Middle School and we, the audience, are their students. To play the game, we are divided equally between the Union and Confederate armies, the objective of the former being to assist escaping slaves and of the latter to capture them. The army with the most slaves wins. The game provides the loose structure for the humorous entertainment which follows, a series of sketches jumping between the Civil War days and 2018. The powerful tool of riotous comedy is deployed to explore the lingering legacy of slavery through to the present.

The show is bold and provocative, brandishing the “N” word like a sharp-edged sword. It is hilarious and horrifying in equal measure as it exposes how mid-19th Century attitudes and values still prevail today, the concept of the mastery of one race over another continuing to infiltrate everyday life in often devious ways. Most daring are segments which explore the nature of inter-racial sexual attraction. After seeing Caroline and Stewart begin to date as supposed equals, we are taken back for a startling scene of master/slave intercourse and then brought back to an equally startling scene with the balance of power having changed.

Inevitably, with a show as fragmented as this, there are segments which work less well than others, but it is at its strongest when it abandons subtlety in favour of full-out, in-your-face comedy, intended to shock and inform. This is not the sort of lesson that most of us will remember from our own schooldays.

Performance date: 9 August 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

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