The Underground Railroad Game: Try Monopoly Instead

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, The Underground Railroad Game

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Years ago, some teachers in a grade school developed an ‘Underground Railroad Game’ that gave students a history of the anti-slavery safe house network along with a new look at contemporary racism. One of the students who played the game in that school was actor Scott Sheppard. He worked on its structure some more with actress Jennifer Kidwell and turned it into a new play, The Underground Railroad Game, that opened last week at the Ars Nova Theater at 511 W. 54th Street, in New York.

This is a railroad that has its tracks crossed, its bridges burned and passenger cars attached upside down. Its locomotive has blown a gasket and the whole train has gone off the cliff and down into the canyon.

The ‘game’ starts just fine as two teachers, Caroline, an African-American woman played by Kidwell and Stuart, a white male teacher played by Sheppard, discuss the rules with the audience. One half of the audience is the Union army, one half the Confederate. The object of the game is to move slave dolls representing the plantation runaways from one room in the high school to another to pick up points. Stuart starts the game as a Quaker abolitionist and Caroline as a runaway slave.

So far, so good.

The dolls don’t move, though. The two performers do. Oh yes, they do! They go through some silly dance routines, fall in love and get into a tussle over a race joke. A few minutes later the woman appears in a Nutcracker Suite style tall hoop skirt as sort of a ‘Mammy’ character. The enormous skirt makes her ten feet high. She is standing in the middle of the stage. We hear romantic music. Then, all of a sudden - get General Pickett right away - she whips off her shirt and is completely, totally, Oh My God, bare-chested. The male teacher, smitten by her, slowly approaches and starts kissing her breasts.

Huh? I don’t remember things like this in my grade school. Do you?

Everybody in the audience looks at each other, really confused. Well, I’ll say…

Those two are all over each other and the runaway slaves are nowhere to be seen. A few minutes later, the play seems to get serious when someone scrawls a racial epithet on a sign. It does not, though. What happens next is beyond description. It is just, well, whoa!

I’m not going to tell you exactly what happens because this is a family website, but let’s say that the male actor starts the scene with all of his clothes on and ends it with all of his clothes…

This play is just bizarre. There is no ‘game.’ I think there are supposed to be certain scenes that express the problems of race in America today. I kept going over them, again and again, and I could not figure out the connections. I could not figure anything out. The two “dolls” took a bow at the end and at least they had their clothes on. The audience seemed as perplexed about the show as I was.

The ‘game’ ends, thank God, and so does the play. My army won so I guess I should have been happy. And I got to keep my clothes on, too.

If he saw this Civil War play, General Lee would have fallen off his horse Traveler and General Grant would have really started drinking.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Ars Nova Theater. Created by Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell and the Lightning Rod Special. Sets: Steven Dufala, Lighting: Oona Curley, Sound: Mikaal Sulaiman, Fight Choreographer :Ryan Bourque. The play is directed by Taibi Magar. It runs through November 11.

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