The exhilarating and intense ‘Underground Railroad Game’ continues to perform this weekend

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 4:35pm

It is rare that I leave a presentation of art — be it a work of theater, a museum or a concert — and find myself at a loss for words. I am usually quick to reflect on and dissect what I see, able to articulate the emotions and feelings and questions that are provoked by my immersed experience. But tonight, I was rendered speechless. The exhilarating, intense, exhausting and confrontational 90 minutes that is “Underground Railroad Game,” presented at Arthur Miller Theatre by the University Musical Society as part of their inaugural No Safety Net festival, forces audiences away from their comfort zones and confronts protruding issues of racism in ways that are unconventional and unrelenting. The real magic of the show comes from its approach. Issues are presented and explained in a way that makes leaving your comfort zone feel natural and necessary, rather than abrasive or intrusive.

Following the opening scene, the audience assumes the role of a middle school class being taught about the Civil War. Part of the lesson plan is to participate in “The Underground Railroad Game” (a real game played in fifth grade by the show’s co-star and co-writer, Scott R. Sheppard), where students on the Union’s side must attempt to move Black dolls from safe house to safe house — bins in each teacher’s classroom — without being caught by the students on the opposing side: the Confederates. In order to designate who’s on which team, under each audience chair is a toy soldier of either blue or silver: blue means Union, silver means Confederate. Contrary to many other works, the audience participation in this instance felt natural, not tacky, and added a personal investment aspect for everyone in the room.

While the theme of this game is ever-present throughout the duration of the performance, the two-person piece moves beyond the classroom and hones in on often unspoken issues regarding mixed-race couples, stereotypes, how to respond to the “n” word, how to teach children about racism and how to handle racist incidents. By breaking the “fourth wall,” and the initial blanket casting of the audience as 12-year-olds, “Underground Railroad Game” does a heroic job of breaking down difficult matters and explaining them simply without coming across as condescending. Yet, it still implores the importance of the topics at hand in a way that everyone understands.

This, however, is only one aspect of the show. What makes this theatre experience remarkable is its multi-layered complexity and absolute fearlessness. From full frontal nudity and shouted expletives to seeing the two characters (and their relationship) transform, “Underground Railroad Game” unapologetically presents audiences with an experience — one they must sit through, learn from and internalize.

While it is true that I could not find words to describe my feelings immediately following this glorious marathon of a show, I was overwhelmingly curious to hear about other people’s experiences and interpretations. I was excited to engage with those around me, to convene with the newfound community of people who shared this powerful experience. I was, and am, looking forward to the conversations that will surely take place because of this show — important conversations that will help people process and learn and grow.

The presentation opened the No Safety Net festival, a series of provocative theater events presented by UMS that will take place over the next few weeks. If “Underground Railroad Game” is any indication of what’s to come, it is safe to say that No Safety Net will be a beautiful, necessary and vital source for exploration, conversation and education.

“Underground Railroad Game” will run this week at the Arthur Miller Theatre: Thursday, Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 21 at 2 p.m.