Becca is an Egyptian American actress and poet
Lawrence is a feminist theater-maker who thinks people are scary, but knows it isn’t enough just to sit in a dark room by herself
What was in your pockets walking in?
Probably the biggest thing was knowing both the actors, especially (actress) Jenn Kidwell and being very fond of her. I have a very hard time separating my friend the actor and the character they are doing. I don’t think that’s their fault or that they’re not doing their job, I think I just have trouble telling that tiny voice that always remembers who they are to be quiet for an hour. So I usually feel bad seeing my friends get naked on stage because my first reaction is always: that’s my friend getting naked on stage, which is a disservice to the work she’s doing.
I didn’t really know what this show was about walking in. I knew the setting was race relations for a middle school and that was about it. I knew, or assumed, that it was for me (a white audience member), but not about me. Or about me, but not for me. I assumed it wasn’t made to make me feel good and I was okay with that.
What was in your pockets?
I knew about as much as you walking into the show, having missed it in the fringe festival this past year. I also walked in having worked with the director, Taibi Magar, on multiple occasions, although that didn’t affect my experience of the production as much as I thought it would.
The most important thing I brought into the experience with me was my identity as an Egyptian woman. This puts me in a complicated position when viewing shows of this nature. I am proud of my heritage and am adamant about Egyptians and their place in the Black community, but as a lightskinned woman, with little ties to slavery- I knew the show would be a complicated experience on my end. Which it was, but definitely in a good way.
I also definitely experience some of those same feelings seeing my friends in shows. Especially as a UArts student, every show I see at school is going to have my friends in it. I think forgetting that this is your friend is impossible. I think this is another big contradiction of the theatre. I think I approach those situations by not actually separating them but seeing this production as a moment in their life. Especially in the case of Underground Railroad Game, where they wrote this thing. That comes from their experience in some way. Even if it they are just characters, I think seeing my friends in it deepens the necessity for the story, because my empathy for the character is a little more accessible. Seeing Jenn, who I have seen before in many productions I have entirely separate experiences of, makes the person on stage have a human depth. It made me reflect onto myself, in a real way, the experiences I have had in my own life that were like the relationship between the two characters or the performance for the students. I thought about how many relationships I have had where my race, or the other person’s race were fetishized in this way.
Maybe that’s not always the appropriate way of reacting to your friends in a show, but that’s how I handle it.
I think this is a really great point – I hadn’t thought about it like that.
What color you soldier did you get? What was that like for you?
I actually didn’t get a soldier. There wasn’t one under my chair, it made me sad. And anxious, because all audience participation makes me anxious.
I thought the use of the soldiers was a really great way to directly involve the audience in the middle school assembly device and I would have liked to see it come back again. For the rest of the assembly scenes it was easy to divorce myself from the two teams having a really horrifying contest that we, as an audience, had been a part of for a moment.
I’m really interested in talking about the framework of the piece and how that was effective. I personally found all the assembly moments so incredibly recognizable that it instantly got me thinking about my own educational experience and how problematic it was. Those assemblies could have happened at my middle school and it was creepy.
I agree, I wish the toy soldiers had come back at some point during the show. I was one of the only POC in the room and I was a Confederate Soldier, so that was a shocking experience.
The format of this show was an interesting one, being partially participatory but mostly not. I heard some other audience members in the row behind me say that they were confused by the format, by how much they were invited to respond or how much of it “was really happening.” But that format felt freeing for me. It blurred what was hyperbole with what was reality, which feels right for this topic of exoticizing. I don’t know if that could have happened in my school actually, but I can definitely recognize the overly-apologetic nature of the white teacher after the N-word was written.
I can imagine that would be really jarring and difficult.
I also found the format very freeing. It allowed the piece to grow to moments of heightened extremism (starting with the dance moment in the first assembly scene) that would suddenly become incredibly real. I also liked choice of a middle school as a setting, because it’s a place that’s already, inevitably, heightened. I also liked how the format forced the audience to be engaged in what was happening, as you said, in the blur between hyperbole and reality. It got me thinking about all the different microaggressions that are just various degrees of gaslighting – moving into hyperbole and treating it as reality. It made me think of all the times I’ve unwittingly participated in similar microaggressions. And that made me feel all the usual backed-into-a-corner, sweaty guilt, but the show didn’t let me dwell on that, which I think is a good thing, because it’s not productive and it’s not about me.
I’d love to talk about the way humor was used in the show, but I’m unsure where to start. I had people around me who laughed a lot and one person who laughed at things no one else was laughing at and it made me super uncomfortable.
It’s funny that you bring up micro-aggressions, because that tended to be the root of the comedy. A lot of the laugh-out-loud moments, for me, were those jokes that seemed most familiar to me, like I have heard or could hear derivatives of them in my own life. The comedy in this piece also reminded me a lot of (The Wilma’s) An Octoroon. I felt, in both pieces, the eyes of white audience members “checking in” with me to see if they could laugh. I felt a strange sense of ownership over certain jokes- like only I could laugh at them. I noticed moments where me and the other 3 WOC in the audience were the only people laughing, and I noticed where others were laughing when I felt uncomfortable.
The comedy in Underground Railroad Game was framed in a way where you laughed and then immediately felt bad, where as at An Octoroon, the severity of the drama isn’t really felt until the end. I didn’t feel compelled to laugh in An Octoroon. Mostly because of that sense of ownership. “Why are you laughing at that? That’s not funny. You shouldn’t be laughing at that.” But I didn’t feel that in this show. This kind of funny made me want to cringe for the characters. (Then again I was front row so that I would watch the show and not other people.)
The biggest difference between An Octoroon as a comedy approaching race next to Underground Railroad Game, for me, was intended audience. The Wilma is painfully aware of its mostly white subscriber base and Joanna Settle’s direction of An Octoroon reflected that- with jokes about being surrounded by whites and the casting of a white woman as the octoroon. But in this case, the argument in Underground Railroad Game felt even between Jenn Kidwell ‘s character and Scott Sheppard’s. Even as I looked around at a mostly all white audience, I didn’t feel the same awareness of that demographic coming from the production. I don’t know whether that helped or hindered on either side, but I felt a bit more invited in this space than at The Wilma. I felt more comfortable laughing.
The opening of the gallery in the end was also kind of humorous in how uncomfortable it made me. To watch all those white people drooling over these black dolls, after a show that calls you out on your fetishizing, was so jarring I couldn’t help but laugh.
After the show ended I was talking to a white boy around my age and he referenced a beat in the show as the “NiggerLover Beat.” I wondered if the saying of that word by Scott (or by other white people in other shows), made it feel okay to say in the room. Or if the position of “objective observation” by an artist is to blame for the ignorance behind that response.
I think you’re really right about the element of ownership in the comedy.
I think that’s what made me so uncomfortable about the show’s comedy – I was aware of how much of (at least to some degree) what was said, how many micro-aggressions and situations were rooted in reality and that seems like something I shouldn’t be laughing at because it’s not me who needs humor in that shitty situation. To draw a not very good parallel, I’m fine with lesbians making and laughing at u-haul jokes, but when straight people do it, I want to punch them. So, as a white audience member, I found a lot of the humor in Underground Railroad Game uncomfortable because I felt I should be rethinking, not laughing, but I don’t think that discomfort is a bad thing. And hopefully the people around me who laughed at everything rethought that laughter when they got home.
The story of that white dude in the lobby is kind of horrifying. I don’t think Scott’s use of that word made it okay to say in the room, if anything it should become even less okay. It doesn’t give anyone a pass. I also think objective observation is a flimsy excuse as well, even if you’re being objective, you still have to learn something.
I think the point about the intended audience is really interesting and I’d love to hear from people who were involved because it may have been discussed during production.