Playing the Underground Railroad
In a year in which the powerful historical symbol of resistance inspired a wave of new art (including the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction), Scott Sheppard ’06 co-created and starred in The Underground Railroad Game, a lauded theater production mounted both in Philadephia and New York.
The 19th-century Underground Railroad had a resurgent moment in 2016, and Scott Sheppard ‘06 was right in the middle of it.
As Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad won awards and spots on best-seller lists, Sheppard and his writing/performing partner Jennifer Kidwell were getting their interactive theater piece The Underground Railroad Game in front of bigger crowds and appreciative critics—including Ben Brantley at The New York Times, who put the play on his “Best Theater of 2016” list.
Like Colson and author Ben Winters (whose 2016 thriller Underground Airlines imagines an alternate history for America), Sheppard and Kidwell bring their audience into the historical network of secret escape routes for slaves with a bit of misdirection. Instead of diving right into stories of slavery and abolition, The Underground Railroad Game begins with a memory of Sheppard’s school days as a kid in Hanover, Pa.
“There was this middle school unit about the Civil War,” recalls Sheppard, 32, who has lived in Philadelphia since graduating from Haverford. “The teachers decided to make a wholesale re-enactment of the war—everyone was split up into Union and Confederate soldiers, with different color T-shirts. The educational games and quizzes became simulated battles, and you could accrue points for doing well in these competitions.”
One of the ways Sheppard and his schoolmates competed was by playing “The Underground Railroad Game,” in which dolls represented slaves and boxes throughout the school were “Safe Houses.” Students scored points by capturing the dolls or ferrying them to safety.
As Sheppard described the curriculum to Kidwell, they discovered the creative bedrock for their play. “We decided to make a piece that used this as a jumping-off point about America’s id, what’s lurking below the surface. We thought of all the ways we haven’t dealt with our own history, how we push down our guilt and our fear of dealing with these issues, ways in which we tell history so we don’t have to deal with things so much.”
The play has the two actors as Teacher Stuart and Teacher Caroline presenting the Civil War unit to their students, and it quickly becomes clear that the audience has been cast as the school kids. After a lighthearted opening, gradually the fourth wall goes up and down, Sheppard and Kidwell move in and out of character, and the comedic tone that begins the piece gives way to unsettling meditations on race and identity.
“The idea that you’re not sure where you are and what the rules are and how the story is being told—that’s the genetic material for the piece,” says Sheppard. And because the performers are constantly interacting with the audience in the “classroom,” each performance can have a different tone and cadence.
The pair first developed The Underground Railroad Game with Lightning Rod Special, the theater company Sheppard co-directs, and then saw the play nurtured in a series of productions by Fringe Arts in Philadelphia and Ars Nova. The fall 2016 Ars Nova production in New York, whose run was extended twice due to high ticket demand, earned positive reviews in the Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, and now Sheppard and Kidwell are taking the piece on a multi-year U.S. tour.
Sheppard, who has led theater workshops at Haverford in recent years, has a full creative schedule lined up for 2017 and beyond, with a new play called Holden opening in New York and two other pieces that are in different stages of writing and production. “It’s a little bit like cooking,” he says about his menu of touring The Underground Railroad Game while simultaneously building new works. “There are some things where the ingredients are bought but not prepared, some things ready to be served, and some things being eaten right now.”