By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
If you missed this brilliant theatrical commentary on contemporary race relations during last year's Fringe Festival (as I did), don't make the same mistake twice.
Underground Railroad Game, reprised at FringeArts, created and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, is both wildly entertaining and profoundly troubling.
We, the audience, are cast as middle-schoolers; we are about to begin a new thematic unit on the civil war. Our two teachers have teamed up to make history come alive with the "underground railroad game" whereby little black dolls are hidden in various spots around the school, and students, divided between the Union army and the Confederate army, have to transport the dolls to safe houses or else capture them. When a student writes an ugly racist epithet on one of the game's signs, the community, apparently only a cherished delusion, falls to pieces.
The question emerges: is history the past or is history merely in disguise as the present? Post-racial America, my foot.
As the two teachers enact the past—Quaker farmer in fake beard leading slave Caroline in headwrap to safety—they become ensnared in a present-day romance. At first this is charming—all rose-colored lighting and dance music—but then things segue into a power struggle: a dominatrix and an auction block, suggesting that bondage by any other name…. "This isn't poetry class, this is sex detention."
The dichotomies are nearly endless: male/female, past/present, white/black, private/public, person/object, friend/lover, generals/armies, teachers/students, clothed/naked.
The minimalist set (designed by Steven Dufala) suggests first a school—sliding wood panels divide rooms, but then it turns out they also divide centuries—while the clever lighting (designed by Oona Curley) shifts mood, locale and era in jokey as well as important ways.
Under Taibi Magar's direction, the two brave actors play with and mock their own and each other's physical presences: Sheppard's open face, radiating good intentions, Kidwell's strong throaty voice, suggesting many flirty possibilities. All the while they craft characters within characters. We watch layers piled on and then layers peeled away. Do either of these people know themselves much less know each other?
We sit quietly in our seats, clutching little toy soldiers, hoping we won't be called on, trying to decide if we should be singing along as the assembly is led in a spirited and slightly creepy rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This is a very high-stakes game being played out for our education.
FringeArts, 149 N. Columbus Blvd.Through May 21. Tickets $15-29.