September 28, 2016

Slave Narratives: "Underground Railroad Game" and "Nat Turner in Jerusalem"

It may be hard to remember now but many people believed that Barack Obama's presidency would take the country into a post-racial era, where, as Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed, people would be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." 

But as the last few years of police killings of black men (and even the political rise of Donald Trump) have made clear the country still has a long way to go when it comes to race. So it's no surprise that the last few years have seen an explosion of works seeking to look at the issue of American race relations by going all the way back to the source of the problem: slavery. 

We've had the movies "12 Years a Slave" and "Django Unchained;" the TV series "Underground" and "Roots," the latter harder-edged than the 1977 original; and books, with the publication just this summer of Yaa Gyasi's "Homecoming," Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" and Ben Winters' "Underground Airlines."

Now, this week, two shows on that theme have opened off-Broadway. The first is Underground Railroad Game, a satire created by and starring Jennifer Kidwell, who is black, and Scott Sheppard, who is white, as two-grade school teachers who have their students re-enact slavery.

People are raving about this show, which is currently scheduled to play at Ars Nova only through Oct. 15 and I don't know if I'll get to it before it closes but you can read more about it by clicking here and you can listen to what the very smart folks at the Maxamoo podcast have to say about it by clicking here.

The other show is New York Theatre Workshop's production of Nat Turner in Jerusalem, a lyrical reimagining of the night before the execution of Turner, the Virginia slave preacher who lead a failed uprising in 1831 and who is also the subject of the new movie "The Birth of a Nation" that is scheduled to open next week.

I've seen the NYTW production, which features a powerful performance by Phillip James Brannon as Turner, but I usually stand down on posting full reviews of shows that I've written about elsewhere. And this time I got the chance to interview Nat Turner's young playwright Nathan Alan Davis for TDF Stages. I hope you'll give our conversation a read, which you can do by clicking here. 

And, of course, I hope that all the conversations these works engender will begin to make things better.

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