Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Underground Railroad Game theatre review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

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Night is falling.

A woman, a slave, frantic with fear, eases an old barn door open and looks inside. The place is deserted; her relief a prayer.

She slips through the door: safe haven.

Respite.

She bites into the apple she’s had hidden in her skirts (more on those skirts later…). Then: a sudden noise outside.

Panic.

She hides.

A farmer enters the barn but sees nothing.

As he moves to leave, the half eaten apple rolls from the hiding place to settle at the farmer’s feet…

We know it’s a game because it says so ‘on the box’, but even though the acting in this opening sequence is pitched at Naturalism plus 45%, it’s a tense few minutes till we learn that the farmer is a member of the Underground Railroad, an informal network that assisted slaves in escaping to freedom (AKA Canada) through the 19th century ’til the end of the Civil War. Phew!

But wait! There’s more! House lights up and we see that the set is constructed largely of cardboard, and it’s: ‘Welcome, Hanover Middle School Grade 5, to this years thematic unit, ‘The Civil War’. That was no slave! That was Teacher Caroline! And that farmer was Teacher Stewart. Let’s show them how great we thought they were!’ – or words to that effect.

And since at Hanover Middle School (‘We don’t learn history, we live it’) we’re divided into the Union’s Army of the Potomac and the Confederate’s Army of West Virginia.

And let’s not pretend I’m not more that a little relieved that my tiny blue plastic soldier confirms I’ll die on the side of the righteous.

Representing the escaping slaves are a couple of black dolls, costumed in appropriate attire. We will gain points for every slave doll that makes it to a Safe House.

And if it all sounds rather benign and like ‘good healthy fun’, consider this: the Confederate students will gain points for every slave returned to captivity.

That part blows my mind a bit actually. Especially since one of the two actors taught at Hanover (near Gettysburg), where just such an ‘educational experience’ was part of the syllabus. But for our purposes it’s a simple trope, and it works.

The framing allows the performers (and co-creators), Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Shepherd, to take some well-worn material and poke at it with a big ‘ole stick. It’s a series of episodic riffs – variations on a theme really – of ‘then and now’, with the developing relationship between the two teachers; a contemporary commentary on race, sex, power and revisionism.

As teachers in control of our ‘class’, the two are pitch perfect and hilarious but darker modes are embraced with equal conviction.

What’s exposed in the ‘game’ is a much deeper vein of history that mere facts and figures can tell.

The R-rated fantasies and fixations of white boy Teacher Stewart, for example, reveal obsession, fear and need. His awkward liberal attempts at ‘solidarity’ are uncomfortable (and then some), while his sojourn under the aforementioned skirts of an 8 or 9 foot ‘Mammy’who croons Motherless Child with a voice pitched as though it comes from the earth, is jaw-droppingly powerful. (And the fact that those skirts morph into a little two-man shadow-lit tent, confirmation that Tilly Grimes (production), Steven Dufala (scenic) and Oona Curley (lighting), are one brilliantly inventive design team).

The counter-balance, a scene of dominance and humiliation where Teacher Stewart is presented to us naked, like livestock, like a slave for sale, is confronting.

This show has had me scouring the internet, trying to fill in facts and figures I admit multiple viewings of Gettysburg – have left me uninformed of. Because if there is a problem for an Australian audience, it’s in the many casual allusions to American history that even the most ardent buff may miss: the teachers affect to ‘jump the broom’ at one point, as did slaves unable to wed without permission of their owners; mentions of Frederick Douglass and Joshua Chamberlain pass by unnoticed.

To save you (dear Reader) the trouble, I note that:

    • The Underground Railroad – what Teacher Caroline refers to as ‘a silver lining to the dark side of slavery’ – operated well before the Civil War: Washington complained in the late 1790s about Quakers trying to free one of his slaves. But despite a growing number of Abolitionists, few of these were active in the escape line, disapproving, as many of them did, of law-breaking (!!!).
    • Penalties for assisting were harsh (though not, one assumes, so harsh as the life of a slave), and the rewards offered to ‘catchers’ for the return of escapees, substantial.
    • Most of those active in assisting were African-American and many, like Frederick Douglass (see above) and Harriet Tubberman, were themselves ex-slaves.
    • Frederick Douglass was also an orator, author, journalist, publisher and activist.
    • Joshua Chamberlain was the unlikely hero of Little Round Top (and jolly well played by Jeff Daniels in that movie I seem to be obsessed by).
    • Of some four million southern slaves, up to 100,000 (though most estimates suggest the figure was much lower) escaped through the informal network.
    • Most came from border states.
    • Most dreamed of freedom in Canada, where they would be afforded actual rights.
    • Many – maybe most – of those who escaped, were recaptured or returned.

Created along with Lightning Rod Special, directed by Taipei Magar and performed against a background of the white revisionist victimhood of a resurgent ‘South’ (one imagines they’d be stoned, should they perform the piece there), this is a piece that hurts.

Informative (with the caveats detailed above) without resorting to polemic; confronting without dissolving into indulgence; performances are intense and unsparing, scripting is whip-sharp, taut, subversive. You leave the theatre a little bit shellshocked, a little bit winded: I’m clutching my blue plastic Union Army soldier so tight he’s digging into the palm of my hand.

Underground Railroad Game is one hilarious show. One hilarious, raunchy, deeply unsettling show. And a pretty stinging rebuke to anyone who thinks the descendants of slaves should just ‘get over it’. Clearly, this is unfinished business.

At the Malthouse Melbourne until February 17
Photo of Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard) by Ben Arons

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