The history of slavery rubs up against liberal white guilt as Underground Railroad Game slips into the Traverse.

When the New York Times recently published its list of the 25 Best American Plays since Angels in America, nestling in at number 21 amidst already acknowledged modern classics, including Lynn Nottage’s Ruined and Brue Norris’ Clybourne Park, was Underground Railroad Game.

Arriving at the Traverse this festival, it’s a savagely comic two hander about how hard it is to talk about the legacy of slavery. It is created and performed by Jennifer Kidwell – who is black – and Scott R Sheppard – who is white. During the show both put their bodies on the line to make visible how the past impacts on the present.

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These upcoming Traverse performances are likely to leave British audiences as discomforted as their American counterparts have been. In the US, many found themselves caught somewhere between horrified, sometimes guilty, laughter and free flowing tears.   

“You use the same muscle group to laugh and cry,” explains Kidwell, who says that “comedy allows us to access deeper truths, and we are constantly playing with the danger of laughter and what it reveals. You can almost feel people looking at each other in the audience and nervously asking: ‘do you find that funny?’ Sometimes people smile as if to reassure themselves that what has been said is safe.”

“How the audience react is always absorbed into the play,” says Sheppard. “It has a very porous fourth wall. But people experience it differently. Some people leave very upset and others leave bewildered that others have found it controversial.”

Kidwell and Sheppard met when they were graduate students at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training in Philadelphia, and the show’s inspiration came from Sheppard’s childhood memory of taking part in a school history class in which students were divided into two groups: those trying to help the enslaved escape using the network known as the underground railway and those on the Confederate side trying to prevent them.

In the show, Kidwell and Sheppard play teachers, Caroline and Stuart, instigating a similar game amongst their pupils – the audience. There may be no actual physical audience participation, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t put on the spot as it becomes increasingly clear that Caroline and Stuart’s relationship is more than simply professional.

Race, desire, power and sexual bondage are all put under the theatrical microscope in a piece that employs clowning and buffoonery, as well as popular tropes from romantic comedy, historical re-enactments and sex play. Kidwell describes the show as, “a meditation on performance, because race is its own performance,” and Sheppard adds it is very much, “a piece about modes of storytelling.”

As Kiddwell observes: “It’s a look at how we create this thing called history. What happened in the past is everyone’s history. But our individual perceptions of it are often very different.”

The show began as a student project back in 2013 and while it has become a fruitful creative partnership, it was not always an easy one. Kidwell and Sheppard have had to fight through their differences, but both reckon it is those differences that lend the piece it’s complexity and power in a world where the legacy of slavery can lead to white and black taking up polarised positions.

Because the pair have been working on the play for so long, Kidwell says that the piece has changed over time to reflect current history as it unfolds, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and the election of Donald Trump.

“It shifts as the molecules around it shift. It makes it interesting to perform, interesting and often snarly and entangled because what it’s looking at is snarly and often difficult to talk about,” says Kidwell.

That’s reflected in the fact that Underground Railroad Game, often described by US critics as ‘lacerating’, refuses to let a white, liberal audience – and most theatre audiences are just that – off the hook.

“We are not trying to make people look like assholes,”says Sheppard, but neither are they trying to comfort the audience.

“Most plays have some kind of catharsis,” says Kidwell. “But here the catharsis, or the lack of it, is deliberately murky. We don’t offer any answers about how we might move forward. Not everyone can deal with that.”

WHERE & WHEN

Underground Railroad Game, Traverse Theatre, 2-26 August (not 3, 6, 13, 20, 25), times vary, from £15 

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