The words come to mind at least a dozen times during “Underground Railroad Game,” the scathing, shocking, incandescently original performance piece at Woolly Mammoth Theatre:
“Oh wow, they’re going there.”
Additional thoughts along these lines crop up regularly as two fearless actors, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, gnaw down to the rawest roots of one’s feelings of guilt, anger, heartbreak and shame, over the most corrupted and debased chapter of the American story.
This would be the one, of course, that covers slavery. “Underground Railroad Game,” created by Sheppard and Kidwell for a Fringe Festival in their home base of Philadelphia and further developed at off-Broadway’s Ars Nova, exposes the blistered nerve of America’s cruelest legacy. That toxic inheritance is framed in the hour and 15 minutes of Sheppard and Kidwell’s play, smartly directed by Taibi Magar, as, of all things, a series of middle-school assemblies led by Sheppard’s teacher, Stuart, and Kidwell’s teacher, Caroline, who explain to us fifth-graders that our unit on slavery and the Civil War will be built around a contest.
Turning unfathomable anguish into eagerly anticipated play activity! How fun! How inappropriate! If you are not instantly made uncomfortable by Kidwell and Sheppard donning military hats of blue and gray and dividing us (from our seats) into Union and Confederate armies, well, hmm. Because what is to come should appall you even more. The rules of the misguided game, as related by the teachers, one black, one white, require the members of the blue team to secretly convey African American slave dolls from one classroom to another, on the path to freedom — the storied Underground Railroad. Those on the gray side have the assignment of discovering their hiding places and sending them back to captivity. Weirdest of all, it’s a point-earning match between blue and gray! Go team!
The absurd competition — and worry not, we don’t actually get up and play — proves to be a worthy metaphor. Americans still don’t know how to confront head-on the racial injustice and ongoing bitterness that our history has engendered. That roiling confusion is also expertly conjured here on a more personal plane, in the complicated relationship that unfolds between Stuart and Caroline. For concurrent with supervising the game, the teachers explore a more intimate alliance, one that brings to the surface in ways funny and poignant and alarming the matter of how race continues to inform so much of how we deal with one another.
The vignettes intermingle historical and romantic tropes, a series of other games, if you will, that disturb our complacent preconceptions. In one striking scene, Kidwell is seen in towering silhouette, a figure of outsize power in 19th-century dress, as Sheppard approaches to engage in an overtly carnal act. Their courtship is revealed in contemporary sequences, too, tender, wordless dance routines and long walks in which Stuart trips awkwardly over his own words: as a white man, he’s insecure about how to talk to a black woman. Their mutual, multiple uncertainties eventually spill over into misunderstanding and humiliation and then even physical aggression.
By the time the evening draws to a close, an audience member is likely to feel that what transpired at Woolly was far more than a game. As reductive as the exercise that teacher Stuart and teacher Caroline have devised may appear to be, the play that Sheppard and Kidwell have constructed is a fascinatingly complex latticework that will have you parsing its lessons long after, in the epilogue of your own experiences.
Underground Railroad Game, by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard. Directed by Taibi Magar. Production design, Tilly Grimes; set, Steven Dufala; lighting, Oona Curley; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman; production stage manager, Lisa McGinn. About 75 minutes. $59-$109. Through April 29 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939 or woollymammoth.net.