‘Underground Railroad Game’ skewers race relations at Fringe Fest

‘Underground Railroad Game’ skewers race relations at Fringe Fest
Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg

Judging by the laugh that erupts from Jenn Kidwell when he says it, Scott Sheppard’s description of himself and his co-creator as “very different” is something of an understatement.

“I would say over 50 percent of our rehearsal process is a debate,” Sheppard says. “We sustain a perpetual argument about pretty much everything, and that’s the creative friction that gives birth to a piece. Part of the excitement of it is that it doesn’t ever feel like either one of us alone could have ever created this — it’s our butting heads together that created it.”

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Co-artistic directors of the devised theater company Lightning Rod Special, Kidwell and Sheppard are premiering their new piece, “Underground Railroad Game,” in this year’s Fringe Festival. The piece was inspired by a misguided attempt at a teachable moment from Sheppard’s childhood in Civil War-obsessed Hanover, Pennsylvania. His fifth-grade class was divided into Union and Confederate soldiers and engaged in a staggeringly wrongheaded contest involving the famed slave escape route.

“It was like a live-action role-playing slave game,” Sheppard recalls. “It was an amazing moment of earnest pedagogy gone wrong, where the lesson that the actual teachers may have had in their hearts was different than what they ended up doing.”

Sheppard invited Kidwell, then a fellow student in the inaugural class of Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training, to join him in creating a piece based on that memory. Drawing inspiration from movies, music, visual art, overheard conversations and other elements, the pair elaborated the original game into a satirical performance piece skewering race relations in America and our discomfort in even broaching the subject.

Kidwell says that while a topic like race “might make you want to shake your head, sigh and maybe cry, Scott and I share the impulse to laugh. This is an attempt to look at things with clarity, integrity and honesty, and I think if you do that, the humor comes out naturally.”

Butting heads

The show wasn’t easy to write, given the creators’ argumentative partnership.

“There’s something about the creation of this piece that is exemplary of what the piece is about,” Sheppard says. “The very compromises that we’ve had to strike through the making of the piece are not a model for some utopia where people who are different live together in harmony.

“It’s people fighting it out and trying to be thoughtful and generous as they’re being critical and ruthless.”

If you go

“Underground Railroad Game”
Sept. 2-12
Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 N. American St.
$20-$29, 215-413-1318