Soho Theatre presents the Ars Nova production.
The Traverse is ON FIRE this Fringe. I expect them to win three, maybe four, Fringe firsts at the weekend. (This show, Ulster American and What Girls are Made of, for sure. I hear great things about others too, including Class and Coriolanus Vanishes.)
But this one troubled me last night. To say it’s shocking would be an understatement (as shocking as Ulster American? No. But very, very challenging). The two stand comparison because they touch on American political issues with nerves of steel and no apologies for their subject matter – in both cases they are rooted in America’s past, its heritage, its DNA.
What UA does is present that as befuddled birthright to Ireland.
Here too it’s based on a confusion about heritage. But the much darker heritage of slavery. America’s shame.
In a society where mixed race relationship, marriage and family upbringing is hardly uncommon, particularly in democratic cities like New York, LA and so on, what this play examines is the underlying racism that says those relationships are actually outliers, that racism is endemic EVEN in those that truly believe they are in touch with their African American side. No, not in touch with it, IN LOVE with it.
And so Ars Nova have written and perform this shocking exposition of that endemic racism by playing two school teachers, one black, one white who seem to fall in love, set against a backdrop of a participative (and mandatory) school history lesson. We, the audience, are the pupils playing the Underground Railroad Game.
Any one unaware of this phenomenon should read Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer winning novel The Underground Railroad. It’s a semi-metaphor for the work of the white abolitionists who took their own lives in their hands to shepherd slaves into freedom in the north and Canada for nothing other than pity (and perhaps shame).
The teachers are played by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard who wrote the play and what performances these are. Brave, energetic (sweat drenched), vulnerable, funny and, oh yes, challenging.
So far, so good.
Where it becomes harder to deconstruct is where the humour stops and the hatred starts. It also challenges the Scottish audience with quite a few North American cultural references I didn’t understand, but you can get over that.
Clearly some of the audience had done their homework better than other because the opening scene in which a slave woman (Kidwell) is discovered in the barn of a quaker abolitionists (Sheppard) both dressed in cliched, almost cartoon, costumes drew howls of laughter whilst the rest of us thought, what’s funny about that? In the context of the whole and in hindsight it is, of course, funny because this play is about undermining the tropes of slavery. It’s out there to DESTROY the tropes. To smash the fuck out of them.
In a series of disjointed vignettes the story (as it is, it’s not really a story, it’s a polemic) takes shape and we realise that the protagonists although falling in love do so from different perspectives. White man Sheppard is actually falling in lust, but maybe in love with the idea that ‘a bit of black’ would be a pretty cool thing to experience and would possibly add to his street cred. (Not among the real racists, mind – and if you know Avenue Q you’ll know that “Everyone’s a little bit racist’.)
Black woman Kidwell quickly spots this because seemingly innocent statements made by Rockwell are deconstructed very differently in the brain of a Black African American woman whose ancestors were almost certainly slaves. And she doesn’t like it.
So we’ve established the premise. It’s brave enough in its own right. As an idea. But to make it sing Ars Nova just go ‘Fuck it, let’s make this thing sing. Let’s not beat around the bush” – yes that’s a deliberate vagina gag). And so it goes full tilt into DESTROYING those tropes. I’ll not go into any detail because that really would move me into spoiler territory.
Let me just say that it goes where most liberal theatre fears to tread and for that Ars Nova deserve all the credit they will get. I personally found it a little hard to follow the narrative thread – I think I was trying to read to much into it at the time – and I found it troubling.
But having reflected on it overnight I am more sure of its message. An important and brave one.
And so I conclude, not without indecision, that this is a tremendous piece of theatre that should be seen and enjoyed by its sell out audiences. But do not go to this if you are easily offended – or you will be poleaxed.