‘A deeply interesting investigation of how the historical perversity of slavery deforms human relationships up to the present day’: Alison Croggon reviews Underground Railway Game at the Malthouse
(Here be spoilers)
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a colony founded on penal labour should have practised slavery but, like many of the darker parts of Australian history, it’s not often mentioned.
Notoriously, there was Blackbirding: for almost half a century, speculators kidnapped Islanders and transported them to work on the sugar plantations of Queensland. It’s much less widely known that, as late as the 1970s, Aboriginal children were legally taken from their homes and forced to labour for decades on stations, missions and government reserves. The state laws varied: in WA, for instance, from 1874 any Aboriginal child could be institutionalised and apprenticed to work from the age of 12 until the age of 21.
“Human rights standards would say that was slavery,” says Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt in the documentary Servant or Slave. “People will say, ‘yeah, that’s something that happened in the southern states of America and that didn’t happen here’, but for the child who was working for nothing in someone else’s kitchen with no other choice, [who] cannot escape, is beaten when they don’t do their work, is abused in other ways – it’s slavery.”
It’s a curious fact that the history of the US Civil Rights Movement is taught in Australian classrooms, while actions such as the 1965 Freedom Ride, a bus tour led by Charles Perkins and the Student Action for Aborigines to fight segregation in rural NSW, is seldom on the syllabus. So there’s a weird dislocation in watching Underground Railway Game, a performance from New York-based company Ars Nova, at Malthouse Theatre.
This play is a deeply interesting attempt to map the racial psyche of contemporary America, investigating how the historical perversity of slavery shapes and deforms human relationships up to the present day. Co-created with the theatre company Lightning Rod Special by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, who are also the two performers, it attempts to excavate the nightmare that still sleeps poisonously beneath the skin.
It begins with hokey melodrama – Kidwell, dressed as a 19th century slave, runs fearfully into a barn, where she is found by Sheppard, a kindly bewhiskered Quaker. He is part of the Underground Railway, a system of safe houses that assisted fleeing slaves to freedom and, yes, *ting*, here is the foundation myth of white saviourhood, the essential goodness that absolves the US from looking too hard at its violent past.
The auditorium lights go up and it turns out that this is a performance put on for school students (us in the audience) by two teachers, the introduction to a series of history lessons about the Civil War. Kidwell and Sheppard explain, after assigning the audience to Union or Confederate sides via plastic toy soldiers placed under our seats, that students are to play the Underground Railway Game for points, one side smuggling black dolls from classroom to classroom, the other trying to capture them.
The premise of the game is immediately discomforting. Being asked to raise my hand and whoop as a Confederate soldier, watching a Black actor cheerily waving a Confederate flag, is kind of weird enough: watching the history of African-American slavery reduced to a competition (“who will win? will you rewrite history?”) even more so. As Kidwell and Sheppard point out in the program, the Underground Railroad functions as a cover for white people: the fact that it existed means that white Americans can think of themselves as essentially kind, absolving them from the “pernicious evil” that slavery actually was.
I can’t help reflecting that at least every student of US history knows, however imperfectly or erroneously, that African people were kidnapped, transported and sold to work on plantations. Here we’re not even at that dubious state of acknowledgement, because we erase or ignore the evidence. When Blackbirding ceased in 1906, for example, the Kanakas, many of whom had lived in Australia for decades, were forcibly deported under the White Australia policy.
Underground Railway Game takes us to some unexpected places, by punctuating updates on the game with a parallel narrative of a developing relationship between the teachers. It begins with an uncomfortable dialogue that rehearses a bunch of micro-aggressions that reveal Sheppard to be, despite all his consciously good intentions, an unreconstructed racist, and escalates into a performance of a sado-masochistic sexual relationship in which Kidwell is fetishised and Sheppard goes through a grotesque performance of shame and distorted aggression.
Kidwell and Sheppard take us, with excoriating honesty, into the most intimate dysfunction: as their relationship deepens, the faultlines become more and more apparent. Their conflict transforms their mutual attraction into a display of perversity, climaxing with a scene of abnegation in which Sheppard’s shame is gratified via a humiliating re-enactment of a slave auction. Sheppard is naked, the red marks of a ruler on his white skin, unable to contain his excitement at this fantasy of expiation. As they slowly get dressed in the aftermath, Sheppard asks: “Is this what we wanted?”
The performers are unflinching, with a laser focus that doesn’t waver, and I admired the freedom of this show’s form, which under Taibi Magar’s direction moves blithely and fluidly from moment to moment, from direct audience address to spectacular and inventive stage imagery. Its effect relies to an extent on the audience’s familiarity with its tropes: when they ask for a rousing chorus of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, nobody knows the words, and for all that we’re a cultural colony, there are details of the school system and certainly US patriotism that simply don’t register with Australian audiences. This makes it hit less intimately than it might otherwise.
But Underground Railway Game deserves its accolades; it’s a show that anatomises, with subtlety, humour and passion, some aspects of racism that are very difficult to trace or name, and that refuses the false comfort of resolution. It ends in silence, after a half-hearted attempt at those easy resolutions, with the two performers just looking at us. They’re not accusing us. They’re just sitting with the dismay they’ve shown us, asking that we think about it.
DISCLOSURE: Alison Croggon’s play My Dearworthy Darling is programmed in Malthouse Theatre’s 2019 season
Underground Railway Game, created by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special, directed by Taibi Magar. Production design by Tilly Grimes, stage design by Steven Dufala, lighting by Oona Curley, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard. Ars Nova at Malthouse Theatre until February 17. Bookings
Contains nudity, strong language, adult content, and material that some audience members may find confronting. To discuss potentially triggering content please contact Malthouse Theatre’s Box Office or speak with a member of staff.
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