Theatre review: Underground Railroad Game, Traverse Theatre

Recently named by the New York Times as one of the 25 greatest American plays of the last three decades, ­Underground Railroad Game bursts on to the stage of the Traverse with all the unruly energy of a badly managed school assembly.

Underground Railroad Game, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) ****

On stage are Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard, the two co-creators of the show for Ars Nova of New York, crudely acting out a scene in which a fleeing female slave tries to hide from a white farmer in impressive 19th-century side-whiskers; but after a few minutes, they whip off their period costumes and address us, their pupils at Hanover Middle School in Pennsylvania, about the project we are about to conduct on the American Civil War that raged through Hanover in the summer of 1863.

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What follows, in Taibi Magar’s bold and sometimes breathtaking production, is not so much a lesson, as a fantasia on the imagery and legacy of the age of slavery, in which the two teachers – he is white, she is black – begin a love affair that unleashes forces of unthinking racism on his side, and centuries-old resentment on hers, that make their strong mutual attraction both improbable and unmanageable.

In dream-like sequences, Kidwell and Sheppard explore the intimate historic relationship between white men and black women, exploited both sexually and as nursemaids by their white masters; and then play out those tensions in reverse, in fiercely explicit scenes of sado-masochistic domination and humiliation.

In the end, we return to the school hall, and to the ­question of what modern America – and the world – can learn from the story of slavery, and its continuing aftermath.

With the love affair between the teachers over, the mood is subdued, although not entirely desolate; and there’s a sense, in the age of Obama followed by Trump, of a nation just beginning to understand the depth of the psychological scars left by a system that was supposed to have been abolished by the victory of the Union forces, five generations ago.

• Until 26 August, 4pm