At first blush, the premise for Fringe Arts’ production of The Underground Railroad Game, which is running this week and next, seems like one of those button-pushing gambits that only “theatre people” would make up:
[…] this tale of two middle school teachers making their Civil War class more impactful and fun: with a game that divides students into opposing armies tasked with capturing or helping runaway “slaves”—black baby dolls hidden throughout the school. Meanwhile, in the heat of their ambition, the teachers engage in a taboo-defying sex-forward relationship set against today’s America and the Antebellum South.
But as the play’s creators readily admit, this was not something they made up: Indeed, the game was a thing they’d been subjected to as schoolchildren. (Granted, the sex part has been grafted on, and that’s the “theatre people” part for ya.) And a bit of research reveals that Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, the play’s creators, were not and are not alone in learning about the abolitionist movement through gameplay. Though we’d probably be hearing about it on the news if the exact version of what the creators describe still populated American schools (imagine a GOP debate question about “The Underground Railroad Game”), the game-ification of the America’s slavery is still very much in evidence — albeit with the slave-capturing parts removed. Board game versions are still out there, and the National Geographic Society offers an interactive computer game, available as both iOS and Android app:
You are a slave. You belong to a farmer who owns a tobacco plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. Six long days a week you tend his field. But not for much longer . . .
What will you do? Make your choices well as you embark on your journey to freedom.
What will you do indeed.