No Safety Net: Underground Railroad Game

This is the first installment of the Michigan Review’s coverage of No Safety Net — a series of provocative theatre performances hosted by the University Musical Society drawing diverse communities together to discuss and re-examine social issues.

Underground Railroad Game, hosted by UMS and recipient of glowing praise from both The New York Times and The New Yorker, simultaneously kept me perplexed and enthralled throughout its 75-minute duration. The program warns of “racially-charged adult language, sexual content, and nudity.”  That may have been an understatement. Tackling issues of racial identity, historical revisionism, and the effects of language through raw and uncensored performances, the play succeeded in rendering its audience thoroughly uncomfortable.  I think that was their goal.

The story centers around teachers Stuart and Caroline leading their fifth grade class — the audience — in an “educational Civil War,” focused around the historical underground railroad.  Through their cheery and comedic demeanor, our instructors explained the rules of the game, tasking each side of the war with transporting “slave” dolls between safehouse crates for points. It was at this point I realized the show was meant to be a comedy — or so I thought.

Our outgoing educators demanded participation from their unsuspecting class, leading to uniquely Larry David-esque moments of cringe-inducing awkwardness.  Each audience member received their Civil War assignment via a toy soldier taped to each chair; for those assigned to the Confederacy (like myself), murmurs of discomfort filled the auditorium as Stuart led his newly recruited army in an Antebellum cheer.  Furthermore, when the Union inevitably wins the war, “reaffirming history,” the audience is led through a painful rendition of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”  Not a single soul felt comfortable singing, much to the chagrin of our teachers, who took great pleasure in reprimanding us.

Overall, as the curtains fell — literally — and the room faded to black, I found myself surrounded by murmurs of confusion and uncertainty.  “Why did Stuart have to be naked?” a family behind me asked.  “Why did anyone have to be naked?”

Our discomfort may have stemmed from the play’s competing narratives, one of the modern love affair between the two educators, the other of the real life plight of a slave on the underground railroad.  Their stories, played by the same actors, mirror one another in tone, reflecting on the evolution of racial tension throughout history.  The narratives blend in with one another so well, I lost track of when my role as a 5th grade student began and ended.

Near its halfway point, the play loses its comedic edge fast.  When a student scribbles “N***er Lover” on a safehouse, Stuart loses his cool, charging the “white community” to fix the problem, whereas Caroline elaborates on the pain such a word should cause us all.  Their classroom squabble makes an abrupt change to their relationship, marred by sadomasochistic abuse, cringe-worthy nudity, and raw emotion.  I honestly couldn’t tell whether to laugh, cry, or groan.

Overall, as the curtains fell — literally — and the room faded to black, I found myself surrounded by murmurs of confusion and uncertainty.  “Why did Stuart have to be naked?” a family behind me asked.  “Why did anyone have to be naked?”

I believe their comments fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of such a performance.  Racial tension in America, be it through direct opposition to slavery or microaggressive language, is uncomfortable.  I personally didn’t enjoy seeing a man bear all before my eyes, nor did much of the audience enjoy hearing racial slurs blurted out during what amounted to a rape scene.  The point wasn’t to make you feel comfortable; rather, it was to explicitly make you feel uneasy in your seat.

I can only describe such a performance as powerful.  To elicit such emotions in an audience, those of extreme discomfort and unease, signifies that at the very least, the performance meant something.  Much like the tension and discomfort experienced by the audience during the performance, we can at the very least agree that racial tension in America is real, and quite uncomfortable at that.

Visit https://ums.org/no-safety-net/ for more information on future performances and community events.

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About Jake Thorne

Jake Thorne is Editor-in-Chief of the Review, studying Honors Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan. He has been an active contributor to the Review since 2014. He can be reached at jnthorne@umich.edu