Your definition of sublime artistry may differ from mine. For instance, you may observe a nude Caucasian man on all fours, in the presence of a dominatrix-like black woman, beating himself with a ruler while repeatedly calling out “Nigger lover!” then simulating masturbation into a towel and think, “Such biting satire! How rarely does one witness such a comedic breakthrough in racial commentary!”
Such a reaction would make you simpatico with The New York Times’s chief theater critic Ben Brantley, who was unrestrained in his praise for the off-off-Broadway play Underground Railroad Game, a two-hander which culminates in the scene I have described above. Brantley was unstinting with the hosannas in his review published on September 26, which caused a stampede to the doors of the tiny Ars Nova theater on West Fifty-fourth Street that in turn pushed the production’s planned closing date from October 15 to November 11. Brantley described the play as “All-ways-sensational,” said it carries “the snarky cheer of a hip comedy sketch” (this is meant to be a compliment), added that it “winds up taking you into subterranean territory [which is] dark and treacherous . . . [in which] cool comic posturing melts into a big hot mess” (this is also meant to be a compliment), and averred that “the smug and familiar humor with which this play hooks us winds up exploding in our faces, like a poisonous prank cigar” (ibid).
Brantley is coy about describing the contents of the show, perhaps because doing so would make his praise seem unjustified, bordering on cockamamie. The play, billed as “created by” Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, its two stars, is described in a program note from the authors as inspired by a hands-on history-lesson game organized by Sheppard’s fifth-grade teachers in Hanover, Pennsylvania. In the game, students were designated as members of the Confederacy or the Union. The “Yankee” students attempted to sneak dolls that represented slaves out of Southern classrooms and stash them safely in the North. The program note reads, in part:
The game was a pedagogical effort to concretize the Underground Railroad. It is also a glaring example of our predilection to contextualize and teach the American system of slavery in liberally dramatized terms that amplify noble and uplifting narratives. If we interrogate the mythos of the Underground Railroad we uncover an apparent need to make systematic exploitation, degradation and objectification palatable. Why is it that we love to narrativize ourselves in ways that propagate the very violence we proclaim to upend?
I know what you’re thinking: surely no play, even one fulsomely celebrated by The New York Times, could be as bad as this one sounds? Oh, but Underground Railroad Game manages. Let me “narrativize” for you just how awful it is.
At the outset, Kidwell plays an escaped slave and Sheppard the Northern Quaker who, using prearranged codes, gives her shelter in his barn. Acknowledging the heroism and ingenuity involved in the Underground Railroad has become politically incorrect in the last few years because turning our attention to any noble behavior by anyone in the slavery era distracts us as political beings from today’s overriding cultural priority, which is denouncing racism and ratcheting up the cultural punishment for violators of the principle of racial equality, even for those long dead. In dramatic terms, this reflex tends to yield turgid and overdetermined didacticism. Who doubts that racism is abhorrent?
The seventy-five-minute play jeers the efforts of grade-school teachers to position the Underground Railroad as “a silver lining to the dark cloud of slavery” by painting the educational scenes with a broad brush of camp, and then turns its attentions to the sexual electricity between its two principals, who slide back and forth from being the overly earnest pedagogues Stuart and Caroline (the historical figures they play for the students) to being, in moments that are meant to be stripped of some artifice, “Scott” and “Jenn” (the actors’ real names). “I think it would make me feel really sophisticated to have a black woman as a girlfriend,” Stuart says on an after-school date with Caroline. She says she has sexual fantasies about Tom Hanks, and makes note of the walking-on-eggshells nature of her conversations with white men, who are terrified of saying anything that could be interpreted as racially insensitive. Stuart, instead of following the same path, revels in racial stereotypes, saying he imagines her “churning butter, in those ample skirts.”
As the talk becomes increasingly lewd, the play devolves into a muddled, jejune, half–thought out psychosexual therapy session in which Kidwell, dressed as a stereotypical “Mammy” figure and singing a traditional black spiritual, bares her breast for Sheppard to nuzzle, then welcomes him under her skirt for a session of simulated oral sex. In what I hesitate to call the play’s climax, the implication is that Stuart/Scott has a case of what Spike Lee naughtily dubbed “Jungle Fever” in his 1991 film about interracial attraction, and Caroline/Jenn is uncomfortable with his reaction to her. This counts as a satiric breakthrough?
The play’s mocking stance toward the overly sensitive race-politesse of well-meaning, soi-disant enlightened white people is simply the obverse of Stuart/Scott’s fascination with filtering one black woman through the history of invidious stereotypes. In fumbling around with racial attitudes, Sheppard and Kidwell seem only dimly aware that their characters are intellectually compromised by a category error of the cultural-Marxist Left—a need to lump people into groups rather than treat them as individuals. Leftist theater, even of the joshing, experimental, barely-coherent variety, tends to be like a maximum-security prison of ideas—no truly daring or original thought is ever permitted to escape.