Underground Railroad Game, a dazzlingly original and intelligent touring production written by the two actors who perform it, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, is set at Hannover Middle School near Gettysburg—and that’s where its commonality with John ends. It runs a svelte, all-killer no-filler 75 minutes, and it sends you out onto 7th Street NW inspired by the way theater can bypass the inefficiency and imprecision of dumb-dumb everyday speech. Especially when it comes to the way liberals talk about race.
Underground Railroad Game first appeared in Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival three years ago; it opened off-Broadway in September 2016. The title and premise come from a well-meaning but misguided teaching exercise Sheppard was subjected to as a fifth grader: His nearly all-white class was divided into groups of Union soldiers tasked with escorting slaves (represented by dolls) to freedom and Confederate soldiers, assigned to recapture them. His recollection of this bizarre lesson, along with a more recent experience he and Kidwell had listening to the discomfort with which a white guide struggled to talk about slavery on an Underground Railroad-themed historical tour, became the grist for this magnificent theatrical collage, which changes form as often as it changes scene. Unusually for two-hander shows built to work in any environment, the show manages memorable stage pictures, as when Sheppard slips beneath Kidwell’s dress, which then becomes a pup tent.
Kidwell and Sheppard play the two teachers who’ve convened an assembly to announce the game. We’re their students. But in other scenes we’re privy to their off-the-clock romance, which ranges from a sweet and disarming first date to a sex game that goes predictably, revealingly off the rails. The historical power dynamic of white male lust for black women is one of the stickier taboos Kidwell and Sheppard gleefully drag into the light here. A more benign one is the relative scarcity of male nudity. I distinctly heard a woman somewhere in the house say “Oh, no” when Sheppard peeled his boxers off. But that’s far from the bravest thing he and Kidwell do. Let’s not discourage them.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to April 29. 641 D St. NW. $20–$84. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.