Underground Railroad Game
Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special
Saturday, September 12
“Kidwell and Sheppard’s stellar performances make the crowd, or the class, laugh, cringe, and often do both at the same time.” NOLA Defender
“We are in a dire situation as far as racial politics are concerned, and I often fear there is no way out. So, what can we do but laugh?” Jenn Kidwell, co-creator and performer
Please note: show contains nudity.
How do we teach troubling histories to young people? By even more troublesome methods!
A delirious, funny, and taboo-smashing work about race relations in America travels through time from a modern-day middle school lecture to pre-Civil War times. Along the way this fluid duet moves through a host of comedic and tragic scenarios, as it confronts and confounds thorny issues of race and the perverse narratives created to soften history.
Watch reenactment culture gone awry, a romantic comedy with hipster racists, an irreverent take on the politics of the “n-word,” the sexual allure of the Civil War, troubling middle school curricula, white saviors and magical negroes, and a time traveling romance between teachers who harbor a racially exoticized attraction.
Co-Creators + Performers Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard Director Sarah Sanford Dramaturg James Ijames Scenic Design Steven Dufala Sound Alex Bechtel Costumes Katherine Fritz Lighting Oona Curley Produced in association with Lightning Rod Special
Executive Producers Tom and Carol Beam
Producer Gene Dilks
Co-Producers Cat, Annie, and Steven Bohnenberger
Co-Producer Nancy Lanham
Co-Producers Andrew Stone and Gene Bishop
Co-Producers Shelley Z. Green and Michael L. Golden Jr.
About Jenn Kidwell, Scott Sheppard + Lightning Rod Special
Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard began the groundwork for Underground Railroad Game as students in the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. Inspired by true Underground Railroad middle school reenactments, Underground Railroad Game also found inspiration from Kara Walker’s silhouettes, park ranger talks, movies, paintings, music, history textbooks, and overheard conversations. FringeArts audiences have seen Kidwell in Pig Iron Theatre Company’s I Promise Myself to Live Faster, and both Kidwell and Sheppard performed in 99 Breakups. Kidwell and Sheppard are co-artistic directors of Lightning Rod Special.
Philadelphia-based Lightning Rod Special is a raucous and contemplative physical theater company engaged in a highly collaborative, actor-driven approach. LRS creations are a finely orchestrated extension of the raw and thunderous discoveries born from spontaneous inspiration. Previous works include: Let the Dog See the Rabbit, Hackles, and Go Long Big Softie.
Color photos: Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg
Sepia photos: Kate Raines
Interview with creators Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard
FringeArts: Why is the title Underground Railroad Game?
Scott Sheppard: We decided to call it Underground Railroad Game not only because the piece is largely about teachers who create an Underground Railroad game for their students, but also because the title is mysterious in the right way. It uncomfortably juxtaposes a very serious and tragic episode in American history with the word game. And so it gives you a sardonic wink that you can’t quite explain. Hopefully, it begins to invite you into the world of the piece; a world where nothing is exactly what you expected it to be.
FringeArts: Can you describe the world of the play?
Jenn Kidwell: Pretty early on we cast the audience as middle-schoolers, but we also play out scenarios that are not appropriate for young viewers. This tension allows us to break rules about the space so that contexts are ever-shifting.
Scott Sheppard: I would describe the world of the play as a trickster world or a funhouse world in that nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems. Just as you begin to settle into your viewing assumptions, you realize that those assumptions are incomplete. The piece is always a step ahead of the audience, darting down thematic corridors, pulling the rug out from under them to reveal potentially horrifying, potentially hilarious secrets. It is also a world of comedic risks. We create moments where some audience members laugh while others cringe.
FringeArts: How have you developed the piece from initial inspiration to now?
Scott Sheppard: The original conceit of the piece was inspired by true events that happened to me where I grew up in Hanover, PA. I lived near Gettysburg, PA where the infamous turning-point battle of the Civil War was fought. Reenactment culture was pretty pervasive in Hanover, and there were plenty of history buffs enthralled by the romantic allure of the Civil War. So, in 5th grade a bunch of my teachers created a thematic unit where the entire school was divided into two teams: Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers. The most popular game was the Underground Railroad game where we snuck black dolls around the school and stuffed them into different boxes, or Safehouses if you will. But that was the seed of the piece.
Jenn Kidwell: We also take inspiration from everywhere: park ranger talks, movies, paintings, music, history texts, middle school curricula, overheard conversations, public interactions, et cetera. We bring these experiences into the room, and improvise scenarios based around them. Then, we see if there’s a place for the material within the piece. In this way, our conflicted feelings about Kara Walker’s silhouettes have become a scene between a slave and a middle school teacher, and our troubles with romantic comedies and hipster racism have turned into a classic “getting to know you” scene with a twist.