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Reveling or Learning?: Reenactment as Popular Historiography in The Underground Railroad Game

Erin Stoneking • University of Alabama

Central to the practices of historical reenactment and living history is a sense that embodied and subjective experience of the past in the present expands or enhances our understanding of history. Moreover, as Scott Magelssen has noted, asking participants to take on a role and work through the given circumstances of a historical event or time period makes the practice “paratheatrical.” 1 While reenactment and living history are readily recognized as tools of public history—that is, history intended to reach or engage a broader audience than academic historians—they are also a mode of popular historiography. That is, they represent not just a strategy for presenting history to the public, but a widely accessible mode of personal inquiry into the past which centers the participant as a co-creator of history and its interpretation. This mode includes a wide-ranging spectrum of paratheatrical practices, from battle reenactment, to heritage site living history interpretation, to interactive museum exhibits and classroom roleplay exercises. Elsewhere, Magelssen has termed these “simmings”: participatory performances that ask participants to engage performatively and immersively in simulations of given circumstances in order to learn more deeply about past, present, and future events, actors, and contexts. 2 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has memorably described such practices—particularly in the context of heritage tourism—as “experience theatre” 3 or “performance pedagogy,” in their reliance on the near approximation of historical experience (“virtual reality”) to stand in for the thing itself (actual history) in order to generate alleged knowledge of the past through personal “process and discovery.” 4 Though these practices may differ in their precise form, context, content, and stated goals, they share a common premise rooted in the tenets of experiential learning and embodied epistemologies, applied through conventions that bear a close relationship to those of theatre and performance. These practices, in other words, privilege the “vital acts of transfer” made possible via embodied performance. 5

On the one hand, reenactment and related popular historiographical practices make a claim about who can produce historical knowledge and about what counts as historical evidence that would seem democratic on its surface: history generated by and for “the people” rather than a cloistered set of credentialed specialists. Vanessa Agnew has characterized these practices as “populist” efforts to produce “history from below” 6 which carry an “implicit charge to democratize historical knowledge.” 7 Certainly, artists, public historians, and activists have used reenactment and living history to explore, interpret, and disseminate histories that amplify the accomplishments and experiences of historically marginalized people, as a direct counter to white-centric or romanticized notions of the past. 8 While acknowledging the limitations and problems that might attend reenactment and related practices as historiographical methods, scholars such as Stephen Gapps and Katherine M. Johnson have recently argued for a serious scholarly reconsideration of the methodological and epistemological possibilities they present. 9

At the same time, though, “popular” also connotes an intention to entertain, to elicit pleasure. It is, in part, reenactment’s proximity to theatre and its status as a leisure activity that render it suspect as historiography. As Jackson and Kidd have observed, the growing incorporation of performative modes of historical interpretation (such as first- or third-person living history demonstrations, or museum theatre) at heritage sites and museums have subjected them to “criticisms of ‘Disneyfication’ and ‘edutainment.’” 10 Such critiques hold that the suggestion of a pleasurable or aesthetic dimension to historiographic endeavors undermines or threatens the credibility and rigor of the history those endeavors produce. Pleasure in the context of popular historiographical exercises becomes particularly problematic insofar as it may derive from nostalgia for or a simulated return to racist, colonizing, and sexist practices. Alternatively, and in the context of the classroom, historical simulation exercises that draw on the principles of reenactment to immersively teach participants the dimensions of a historical event risk causing further harm by oversimplifying or reinforcing the power dynamics that undergird oppressive systems—even when exercises are explicit in their aims to reveal oppression as such. Such risks, from the perspective of 2023, are compounded by ongoing legislative and grassroots efforts in the United States to severely curtail the teaching of major parts of U.S. history accurately and in the fullness of their contexts, including African American and LGBTQIA+ history.

This article examines how, in their 2016 play Underground Railroad Game, co-creators and performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard probe the thorny tension between these two senses of the word popular, asking whether popular historiographical modes premised on embodied experience “learn from” or “revel in” history. 11 The play, devised by the performers as part of Philadelphia-based theatre collective Lightning Rod Special, casts the audience as middle school students and follows a pair of over-enthusiastic teachers through an extended gamified classroom reenactment of the Civil War that also serves as a vehicle for the teachers’ sexual and romantic fantasies. As the play’s multiple and overlapping frames (theatrical event, classroom reenactment exercise, first-person historical interpretation, 12 sexual fantasy) bleed together, I contend that Kidwell and Sheppard illuminate the indeterminacies and limitations of historical simulation as a mode of popular historiography and emphasize the failure of such practices, particularly as they are employed in a classroom setting, to fully confront the legacies of slavery and evidentiate the narrative of racial progress that often underpins them.

A note on terminology: I use the term “reenactment” here broadly, as it is deployed in the field of reenactment studies. As stated above, the term “reenactment” stands in for a wide spectrum of practices and techniques, broadly defined as “attempts to copy the past,” where such attempts must “to some extent be imagined” before they are “incarnated,” rendering the past “present to our senses as a living and moving phenomenon.” 13 The practices studied under the lens of this umbrella term encompass multiple and sometimes entangled registers of human activity and meaning, including play and fantasy, ritual commemoration, art, pedagogy, and inquiry. 14 Treating the term capaciously—rather than strictly in reference to, for example, battle reenactment—permits me to reference both the spectrum of popular historiographical techniques that share the broad contours of present-day simulation of history and the collection of intertwined functions they serve. Moreover, in the context of the play Underground Railroad Game, such entanglements and blurred distinctions are both the message and the medium: as I will attempt to illustrate, the play’s creators engage multiple practices and registers that might fall under the term “reenactment,” collapsing the distinctions between them.

The play’s various frames and roles are murky from the outset: the stage lights rise on a barn, where a Quaker Man explains to a fugitive enslaved Woman that he will help her get to the town of Hanover, but she will have to rely on the help of others to make it all the way North to Canada and freedom. Suddenly, the house lights come up, and the actors turn to address the audience. “Do you Hanover Middle School students want to help Teacher Caroline get to freedom?” gushes the performer formerly noted as “Man,” in the script, now called “Stuart.” 15 Prompting the audience to reach under their chairs for the envelopes which have been taped there, the teachers explain that the color of the plastic toy soldier they find in their envelope—gray for Confederacy, blue for Union—will determine each student’s loyalty in the ensuing historical simulation. The winning side will be determined through points designated by the outcome of every school assignment, but also through “the Underground Railroad Game,” an immersive historical simulation exercise designed to teach the students about slavery (and, presumably, white resistance to and complicity in its continued existence). In the game, Union students earn points by safely smuggling Black dolls representing enslaved people to cardboard “safehouses” in other classrooms and Confederate students earn points by successfully intercepting these dolls. The students will learn about the lives of the enslaved via scenes enacted by their teachers. The teachers themselves will be roleplaying generals leading the respective armies, as well as the aforementioned fugitive enslaved woman and a Quaker Underground Railroad conductor.


As a form of reenactment, the “Underground Railroad Game” classroom exercise privileges personal experience in the acquisition of historical knowledge. Historical reenactment is a “body-based discourse in which the past is reanimated through physical and psychological experience,” weighting the personal and the affective as reliable evidence for historical knowledge alongside, and perhaps in opposition to, historical documents and history texts. 16 In contrast to more traditional educational methods, in which students passively receive knowledge from textbooks written by experts, popular historiography in the classroom rests on notions of “active learning,” in which students become participants in the learning process and are empowered to engage with materials as budding experts in their own rights. As Stuart reminds his students, “At Hanover Middle School, we don’t just learn about history from reading old books. We learn about history by living history.” 17 Such pedagogical approaches purport to make school subjects more accessible—both in the sense of rendering subjects more comprehensible in familiar terms (such as personal experience) and in the sense of endowing the student with the ability to speak authoritatively about a subject, rather than solely the expert. Yet an emphasis on liveness and lived experience as the source of historical knowledge also troubles the notion that history is a settled or defined entity, relegated entirely to the past. As Rebecca Schneider has observed, the play of liveness in living history and reenactment admits a kind of slipperiness to the received logic of linear time, and perhaps compels new, contradictory, or unexpected truths to emerge. 18 Similarly, within the play’s “Underground Railroad Game,” history is malleable and open to revision: “it’s up to you guys,” Stuart informs the student-audience, “are you going to reaffirm or rewrite history?” 19 Historical simulation, as a popular historiographical mode, would thus seem to offer not just the opportunity to “learn from” the past by living it, but the ability to shape the past in the present.

Yet the open question remains unresolved: according to whose vision, ideological investments, and desires will the past be revised? The reenactment here is gamified, flattened into a set of rules spurred by pleasurable competition; it is a very simple demonstration of a complicated set of interrelated historical systems and forces (slavery, race and racism; sectionalism, war, law; abolitionism, civil disobedience). Any sense of power or possibility in the promise of a democratized historiographic exercise is undercut by the extra-theatrical reality that the dramatic script is already written: although the audience is putatively immersed in the role of the student playing the “Underground Railroad Game,” we are given little agency to affect the outcome of the narrative beyond cheering, clapping, or shaking hands with seatmates, at moments prompted by the actors. The game, in other words, is fixed. Moreover, the hokey, ingenuous zeal with which the teachers introduce the gamified approach to teaching the history of American slavery, white supremacy, and Civil War suggests that they are perhaps less prepared to sensitively and seriously handle the subject than they believe. This foreshadowing is borne out when the word “n***erlover” is found scrawled across one of the cardboard safehouses, prompting the teachers to scramble to address the situation with their students adequately. While Black teacher Caroline attempts to address the student body as a whole, urging community accountability and empathy, white teacher Stuart becomes increasingly manic in his show of racial solidarity. Separating the students by race, he cluelessly repeats the slur to emphasize how hurtful it is, demands that white students think about the “horror” of being “a minority,” and ultimately proposes to Caroline with his great-grandmother’s ring, “because I want to live in a world where you can wear my great-grandmother’s ring.” 20 Caroline’s discomfort with Stuart’s performance is palpable. She has attempted to address the student body without singling out students by race in order to lead and model a frank but reparative discussion about the history and meaning of a racial slur. Stuart, meanwhile, has essentialized, condensed, and frozen “minority” experience to one negative affect (“horror”), accused white students as a group, and has turned what should be a moment of intimacy and mutual love into a politicized and ostentatious display of his own anti-racism.

Simulations, role-playing games, 21 and living history exercises, which first began to gain popularity in the U.S. classroom in the 1990s, have been touted as “student-centered learning,” encouraging students to be “engaged and interacting with the material,” and teaching them “that their actions can be significant in making things happen.” 22 They have also, and especially recently, made national headlines for placing undue representational burdens on students of color, oversimplifying complicated experiences of oppression, and traumatizing children with simulations of racist degradation and violence. 23 Learning for Justice, the educational branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center, recommends that teachers avoid role-playing in teaching slavery, and warns in particular against separating students by race or treating them “as modern-day proxies for enslaved people or owners of enslaved people.” 24 That the “Underground Railroad Game” should come to a disturbing climax around the reification and return of historical racism, then, seems inevitable. Yet the students do not seem to be the only ones struggling with the risks of the Game: teachers Stuart and Caroline extend the historical reenactment into elaborate and flirtatious private role-play games that veer into overt sex and BDSM, walking the tightrope between sexual fantasy and racist fantasy until the distinction collapses altogether. Their sexual play manifests outlandish racist caricatures and fantasies of the past, such as when a silhouetted Stuart suckles at Caroline’s bared breast while she sings the spiritual “Motherless Child” and he is ultimately consumed by her enormous petticoats, in a moment reminiscent of the artwork of Kara Walker. Notably, this moment arises seamlessly from a first-person living history interpretation, in which Stuart interviews Caroline as “Miz Annabelle,” an “actual slave” for the benefit of the students. 25 The distinction between the teachers’ private fantasy role-play and the role-play undertaken as part of the classroom reenactment blurs, as the scenes bleed into and erupt from each other.

This blurring of roles and role-play in the context of reenactment comes to a head after Stuart proposes marriage to Caroline in an attempt to demonstrate his anti-racism following the discovery of the slur on the safehouse: the two enact a frenzy of joy and anger, ripping down the Confederate flag displayed in the school auditorium, jumping over a janitor’s broom, wrestling each other and screaming their safe word, “Sojourner.” “The line between violence and sex,” the stage directions read, “no longer exists.” 26 In the following scene, titled “sex detention,” Caroline orders Stuart, now in his underwear, to stand on a box. Beating him with a ruler, she assesses his body, finally demanding that he strip naked. Once he has reluctantly complied, Caroline forces Stuart to read the slur on the vandalized safehouse. She makes him read the slur over and over, repeating it in various accents, volumes, and cadences until, unprompted, he begins to yell it and beat himself with the ruler, moved to an unholy sexual climax. The two silently and awkwardly get dressed again. In the script, their next lines are as the writer-performers “Scott” and “Jenn,” not as the characters Stuart and Caroline:

SCOTT: Is that what we wanted?

JENN: I’m not sure. 27

This moment, in which the writer-performers drop their characters and engage in meta-commentary about their ambivalence toward the play, might pass unrecognized in performance: there is a tonal shift, to be sure, and the performers speak without the wild zeal of the teachers or the stately and overdrawn drawls of the historical figures they reenact. Yet nothing else suggests to a viewing audience that the creators have momentarily broken character. Emma Willis argues that such metadramatic devices “emphasiz[e] the contingency and indeed instability of the theatrical event.” 28 That audiences may not recognize the metatheatrical self-reflexivity amplifies this very instability, and further amplifies the doubt the writer-performers express. Notably, this moment echoes and fails to resolve the only other return to the writer-performers’ names, when “Jenn” and “Scott,” two scenes prior to the “sex detention” scene, interrupt their role-play as Man and Woman to question whether they are “reveling in the past” or “learning from it.” In this first character break, following a discussion about what, exactly, the writer-performers are doing in the piece, Jenn likewise leaves the matter unsettled, responding “I’m not sure.” 29 “What we wanted”—the animating impulse at the core of both the play and the reenactment exercise—was already indeterminate, even before the writer-performers find themselves unable to assess whether they’ve achieved it. The simulated history, verging as it does into pleasurable fantasy, appears to have escaped the control of not only the characters in the play, but of the writers themselves.

Fantasy is a significant feature of the various forms of role-play throughout the play, and a primary mode through which Kidwell and Sheppard highlight and interrogate the unruly and uneasy circulation of pleasure through popular historiographical practices. A fantasy is a “day-dream arising from conscious or unconscious wishes or attitudes,” the “process […] of forming mental representations of things not actually present,” and “delusive imagination, hallucination.” 30 As in another recent play that teases through the complex entanglement of power, pleasure, psychosexual role-play, and slavery—Jeremy O. Harris’s controversial Slave Play (2018)—Underground Railroad Game plays these meanings off of each other: the fantasies that arise from the play’s various historical simulations reveal the characters’ deep-seated erotic and romantic desires and how history and the legacy of U.S. racism and racial identity formation continue to operate in the present. And making history present, across their own bodies, is precisely what Caroline and Stuart undertake in the context of the reenactment exercise. Though they play out the resulting fantasies together in pursuit of pleasure, the fantasies ultimately take on a hallucinatory life of their own, and reality—or at any rate, the narrative frame through which we should view and understand what is playing out on stage at any given moment—becomes unstable. The teachers’ sexual fantasies throughout the play, tied as they are to the roles and setting of the antebellum Southern plantation, dramatize precisely the controversy at the heart of simulated history in the classroom: are they using reenactment to confront, work through, and understand the complicated intersections of power, race, gender, and desire, or are they merely “reveling in the past”? 31 Is it possible to distinguish between the pleasure of living history and the lessons it might yield? Premised as simulated history is on the embodied experience and emotions of the individual, can these kinds of classroom exercises ever satisfactorily address or redress individual conclusions or interpretations of the material that run counter to the exercise’s purpose?

Central to the “sex detention” scene is a revisionary reenactment of the history of the American chattel slavery auction block; these revisions seem, at first blush, to reverse or counteract the gendered and racialized power imbalance that characterizes the historical auction block. As Patricia Hill Collins has noted, the auction block was one of many iconic stages for the display and consequent objectification of Black women’s bodies; such scenes of compulsory display rendered Black women’s bodies animalistic, hypersexual, and commodified and further cemented the idea of Black women and Black women’s sexuality as subject to domination, regulation, and exploitation. 32 Saidiya Hartman has furthermore elucidated the auction block as the vexed site of both pleasure and pain, as the enslaved were forced to perform happiness to facilitate their own sale and ensure their survival. Hartman, in particular, reads an account of the sale of a woman named Sukie, and how she is able—via a “subversive reiteration of the potential buyer’s splaying of the body” that savvily plays on this intermingling of pleasure and pain—both to emphasize the spectacular, sexual violence of slavery and to threaten violence toward her enslavers. 33 Underground Railroad Game’s sex detention scene would seem to similarly perform a subversive reiteration of the auction block scenario by inverting its roles. Yet as the scene wears on, the self-same intermingling of pleasure and pain that open the scenario up to signification in Hartman’s reading threaten to eclipse the inversion’s subversive potential.

In a reversal of the expected roles, a Black woman takes up the position of the auctioneer or enslaver, while a white man is made to display his body on the auction block as an enslaved person. Already the power dynamics appear to have shifted: the Black female auctioneer exerts physical control over the white enslaved man on the block, disciplining him for not adhering to her commands quickly enough by striking his body. Naked and appraised as though for purchase by and/or the sexual gratification of the viewer, the white man is reduced to an object. He performs for her, obeying her demands to dance, to strip, to recite the racial slur in a French accent, backwards, as a dog. However, just as it appears that the new power dynamic has solidified, yet another shift occurs, almost as if the word itself has altered the balance. The racial slur, as Koritha Mitchell has noted, is powerful in and of itself, as a discursively violent means of demarcating the relative value of humans based on their race. 34 As the racial slur sounds again and again through the performance space, the white man appears to draw power and sexual arousal from it. The Black woman is no longer in control of the word or its expression, no longer in control of the disciplinary weapon, and is left to observe in silence as the white man achieves sexual gratification using precisely the tools that she had once used to hold him in check.

His sexual gratification, indeed, calls to mind the BDSM relationships that take the form of a female dominatrix dominating a male submissive or “slave.” Part of the allure of this arrangement is an apparent reversal of normative gendered power dynamics: “the whole world,” as one professional dominatrix puts it, “is upside down.” 35 Instead of being the most powerful person, the man revels in relinquishing control to someone typically in a position of relatively diminished power. As some sociologists have noted, these seemingly subversive encounters may ultimately reinforce and repeat existing dynamics of gender, power, and desire, as they center the male clients’ sexual demands and cast women as emotional laborers. 36 This objection, however, may risk reifying the very structure with which these scholars take issue: a focus on what the male client “gets” out of a BDSM relationship or encounter as opposed to what the dominatrix gets or perceives. For example, Mistress Velvet, a Black dominatrix, described their work in BDSM as a form of individual reparations; in addition to the money they received from their white male clients, they often assigned them reading in Black feminist theory as part of their domination sessions. 37 “It’s a very exaggerated power dynamic,” they note, “but its roots I think for me, emotionally, are coming from a need of being tired of navigating oppression, and wanting to feel some sort of power that’s in my hands, even if it’s just for one hour.” 38 For Mistress Velvet, being a Black dominatrix is a form of radical self-care, a way of—momentarily—reversing the power dynamic that characterizes their everyday life. Caroline and Stuart’s BDSM-inflected and inverted reenactment of the auction, then, bears an unsettled and unsettling relationship to the auction block’s typical power dynamics. In one reading, the two, bogged down by the historical and contemporary intersections of slavery, racism, and sexism, only reinscribe the historical event they set out to subvert via reenactment; notably, this re-inscription occurs across and through the contemporary, laboring bodies of the actors. In another, Caroline’s temporary control over both the racial slur and Stuart’s body asserts an important if transitory inversion of the normative racial and gendered allocation of power.

The ruler and the school auditorium where this scene takes place (amid the schoolhouse detritus of flags, brooms, and dolls) invokes both the imbalance of power between teacher and student, and its eroticization via “school-teacher” fantasies. The savvy audience-member might recall, in this moment, that we are, in the framework of the play, the students. Consistent and immersive direct address (in some cases going so far as to call out individual audience members for misbehaving, answering questions correctly, or playing on the school basketball team) has thus far clearly positioned us as students, guided through an educational encounter with history. Bulletin boards posted on the back walls of the theatre, the intermittent interruption of school bells, and the toy soldiers taped under our seats extend the world of the play beyond the stage, creating an immersive setting for its audiences. 39 This immersion was particularly potent the evening I saw the production at Woolly Mammoth, as a real fire alarm for the theatre sounded halfway through, leaving some audience members confused as to whether the siren was part of the show or not. Reluctantly but dutifully filing across the street to wait for the all-clear to return to our seats, many theatregoers continued to wonder aloud whether this might be a simulated middle school fire drill. As Tina Post has noted, in some productions, the sense of immersion in the role of student is so acute that at least one audience member has attempted to use the “Sojourner” safe word introduced at the top of the play to stop the play’s action, and critics have written reviews that muddle the acts and roles of the spectators with the events described onstage. 40

In the Ars Nova production at Woolly Mammoth, whereas the reenactment scenes prior to “sex detention” were underscored melodramatically with music and took place upstage, framed by ramshackle cardboard-clapboard in an approximation of a plantation structure, this scene took place downstage, more clearly in the middle school auditorium space. The distinction, it seemed, between historical role-play for the purposes of education and contemporary role-play for the purposes of sexual titillation had eroded. Thus the mixed dramaturgical messaging of the “sex detention” scene leaves us stranded as participants in the framework of the play: are we privy to the teachers’ antebellum-charged fantasies, or are we watching another history simulation within the classroom reenactment? Are we being taught another lesson? Ultimately, all roles in the play are unstable. Just as Caroline becomes Woman becomes Jenn and Stuart becomes Man becomes Scott, their audiences’ role as the Hanover Middle School student body floats in and out of focus. The instability of these personas echoes and emphasizes the inherent instability and inadequacy of the often pat or flattened roles that classroom history simulations like the “Underground Railroad Game” assign to students.


The play’s established conventions, the framework of the reenactment, the invitation to participate in popular historiography crumble under the weight of history and the difficulty of change: this disintegration feels just as much an assertion of the inexorable and enduring traces of the nation’s racist past in the nation’s present as it does an indictment of the use of classroom role-playing exercises to teach sensitive material. Indeed, as the following scene concludes the play with a series of reaffirmations of the previously established conventions, it seems to suggest the limits of popular historiographical modes as tools for thoroughly and deeply confronting the legacies of slavery. But moreover, it suggests, in its structure, a deep skepticism about claims or narratives of racial progress. The two writer-performers, briefly “Scott” and “Jenn,” return to their original characters of teachers Stuart and Caroline, addressing the student body with characteristic cheer. Greeting the audience as “Hanover Middle School” and “soldiers,” the teachers ask us to cheer for our respective sides in order to identify ourselves as Rebels and Yankees before instructing us to shake hands with an opponent. 41 Thus the framework of the play, temporarily disrupted, falls back into place, reaffirmed: we are once again hailed as the students, and the actors before us take on the roles of our teachers. They are ready to disclose the results of the competition: have the students “reaffirm[ed] or rewrit[ten] history”? Caroline and Stuart announce in triumphant unison that “history has been reaffirmed.” 42 Although ostensibly the preferred outcome—the Union’s victory precipitates, after all, the reunification of a fractured nation, the abolition of slavery, and the de jure enfranchisement of African Americans—the announcement falls flat. Ringing backwards across the shocking scene we’ve just witnessed, the statement strikes one as an apt description of the auction block reenactment. That is, it is not the progressive thrust of history which has been reaffirmed, but the historically embedded scenarios which replicate and transfer embodied repertoires and structures of meaning across time. 43 History has indeed been reaffirmed, in the worst way.

The final scene returns us to the simulated past for what would be—in a straightforwardly progressive historical narrative—a touching and earnest gesture toward a better future. Whereas previously Caroline and Stuart have embodied the roles of the Quaker Man and the fugitive Woman, in this final scene, the two teachers use dolls as puppets, which serves to emphasize, in the words of Performance Studies theorist Richard Schechner, the both/and “not-me/not-not-me” aspect of reenactment. 44 The teachers are not the dolls, not the roles the dolls represent, and yet we watch them manipulate the dolls and give them voice. Perhaps the central failing of popular embodied historiography is its failing to account for this inextricable overlap of present and past, the matrix of individual contemporary experience and historical context. Perhaps it is, as the dolls also suggest, its proximity to acts of play and pleasure. The dolls, representing the fugitive enslaved woman and Quaker Underground Railroad conductor, bid each other goodbye. The woman will head North to freedom; the man will treasure the memory of his role in her escape.

MAN: Now, this is not the end of your journey, but you are free from your past.

WOMAN: Somehow, I don’t feel any different. 45

Notably, the doll that represents Woman is one of the Black dolls utilized in the “Underground Railroad Game,” tossed casually between the teachers as they explain the rules, and a literal token of Blackness. As Kidwell clarifies in the 2018 Woolly Mammoth program notes, the reappearance of the doll here is deliberate: in an under-resourced initial production, “the re-inscription of objects was once for utility,” she says, “but also to say ‘to you, this is the icon of freedom, to me it’s actually the icon of death.’” 46 In their parting exchange, the white Man, earnest but misguided in his fervor to help, fails to understand the weight and residue of the racist past and presumes to declare the Woman “free” of it. The Black Woman’s response challenges this linear and progressivist notion of history. History, here, remains in the body, felt, and not so easily changed, solved, or dismissed. At the same time, heard within the play’s unstable and intersecting frames of first-person living history interpretation, sexual fantasy role-play, and classroom reenactment exercise, Woman’s “I don’t feel any different” suggests a stubborn stability to the reenacting subject that undermines popular historiographical practices’ claim to enable a transformational, albeit transitory, encounter with the past. Moreover, as the Man’s declaration suggests, the particular intersection of visible identity markers that play out across the body and shape one’s lived experience necessarily structure and potentially proscribe one’s ability to feel “free” from the past. The difference in the way the two characters interpret Woman’s escape to freedom from chattel slavery raises a significant question about the limits of embodied experience to transmit or produce new knowledge that ultimately returns us to the play’s exploration of popular historiographical modes.

The interplay of affect, embodied experience, and the stubborn residue of history highlighted in the final moments of Underground Railroad Game crystallizes a final nuance of the “popular” in popular historiographical practices: namely, that which is commonly known or believed. As historian Joan W. Scott has noted, “the evidence of experience,” which undergirds popular historiographical practices “reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems.” 47 Reenactors and living historians pursue and enforce sometimes dizzyingly obscure markers of authenticity in their historiographical practice (such as “period-appropriate” textiles, social customs, or language) driven by the notion that the more authentic the circumstances under which their reanimation of history occurs, the more likely that the embodied experience produced will more closely approximate the actual past and the lived experience of historical actors. One handbook for would-be Civil War reenactors describes how, in contrast to those units that allow their reenactors some tactfully disguised modern conveniences, the most “authentic” units “spend weekends eating bad and insufficient food, and they practice a steady regimen of work, marching, and drill. They suffer the cold, carrying insufficient clothing and blankets as well as sleeping campaign-style by spooning with each other for warmth.” 48 But these reenactors are rewarded for their efforts, the handbook advises, with a closer approximation of the experience of “the original soldiers”; the handbook admiringly judges that “the results are impressive, to say the least.” 49 On the one hand, the pursuit of authenticity and extreme experience stand in for the anxiety-flecked “absence of a privileged voice,” creating a “hierarchy of legitimacy” where the most extreme or authentic embodiment of history is the truest or best; on the other, they may represent a democratizing and empowering mode for exploring or uncovering previously undocumented lives on the margins of history. 50 Yet the emphasis on experience as evidence, in Scott’s accounting, will always fail to critically grapple with histories of difference in that such evidence takes that difference as a presupposed point of departure and “thus naturalize[s]” it. 51

Likewise, the kind of popular historiographical classroom exercise represented in Underground Railroad Game relies on what students and teachers bring to the exercise: the assumptions, beliefs, popular mythologies and narratives that inform each participant’s understanding of or expectations about U.S. history and race relations. Notably, the “Underground Railroad Game” exercise locates agency in and privileges the perspective of whiteness, as students compete to traffic Black dolls. The few interludes in which students hear from an enslaved person, via Teacher Caroline’s first-person living history interpretation, inadequately portray the fullness of the oppression of slavery (the enslaved, we learn, are “not compensated for [their] efforts,” which is not “very fair” 52 ) while simultaneously undermining Black agency or resistance by characterizing the fugitive Woman as ignorant and helpless without the white Man. The exercise’s structure and content replicate prevailing narratives commonly taught in U.S. social studies classrooms and reanimated in political discourse, wherein slavery was a regional problem perpetuated by some bad actors, and the actions of heroic whites and the inevitable progression of history brought about its conclusion, thereby satisfactorily addressing and resolving its existence and absolving the nation of accountability. 53 When such points of departure form the foundation of the experiential evidence that undergirds such exercises, can we ever expect to produce new or transcendent critiques or apprehensions of history? How might embodied experience, filtering the past as it does through the lens of the lived present, always already limit the horizons of our understanding?

In a moment in which the teaching of subjects like race, slavery, and U.S. histories of racism have come under increasing scrutiny and legislated proscription at all levels of education, the stakes of pedagogical approaches to these topics have intensified. Counter to the putative democratizing impulse behind popular embodied historiographical exercises, predominantly white, conservative parents, pundits, and legislators would circumvent access to any discussion or exercise which might directly or indirectly indicate the ongoing impact of racism and slavery on present structures and institutions. Rather than concern for the psychological trauma such exercises or discussions might inflict on students of color, these efforts reflect an anxiety that white students might experience feelings of discomfort, guilt, or shame. Although Underground Railroad Game is ultimately deeply suspicious of popular historiographical practices’ ability to empower students to produce historical knowledge that might adequately approach the complexity of U.S. race relations, it also emphasizes how theatre and the “paratheatricality” of such practices might alternatively offer an opportunity to examine the residue of racist histories in the present and how they play out in our everyday desires and interactions, because the lived experience of the contemporary reenactor is inextricable from their interpretation of and encounter with the past. As Sheppard queries, “When we wear masks, what kind of games can we play with each other, and what does that free us to express about ourselves that we might not if we weren’t wearing masks?” 54


Previous drafts of this article benefited from the astute attention of Ellen Gainor, Riché Richardson, Shirley Samuels, Sara Warner, members of the UA Gender and Race Studies writing group, and members of the 2022 SETC Theatre Symposium, as well as from the comments and suggestions of the reviewers. My thanks to artists Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard for agreeing to share their unpublished work with me.


Agnew, Vanessa. “Introduction: What is Reenactment?” Criticism 46, no. 3 (2004): 327-339.

Agnew, Vanessa, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann. “Introduction: What is Reenactment Studies?” In The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies, edited by Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann, 1-10. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Branigin, Anne. “California High School Sparks Criticism for Using Slave-Ship Role-Play to Teach Students History.” The Root. Sept. 18, 2017.

Cardall, Ian. “Simulation and History: What Actually Happens in the Classroom?” Teaching History 43 (1985): 14-19.

Collins, Patricia Hill. “The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood.” In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edition, 133-160. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Dillon, Denise. “Georgia Mother Wants Changes After Daughter’s Field Trip Includes ‘Slave Auction’ Lesson.” Fox 5 Atlanta online. April 20, 2023.

Factora, James. “In Memory of Mistress Velvet, the Revolutionary Dominatrix Who Fought for Sex Workers.” Them. May 17, 2021.

Gapps, Stephen. “Mobile Monuments: Commemoration and Historical ReEnactment.” In Historical Re-Enactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn, edited by Iain MacCalman and Paul Pickering, 50-62. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Gore, Sydney. “The Black Dominatrix Who Gets Reparations from Her Clients.” Paper Mag online. February 26, 2018.

Hadden, Robert. Reliving the Civil War: A Reenactor’s Handbook. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1996.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Israel, Michele. “Tongue-Tied.” Teaching Tolerance Magazine, no. 46 (2014).

Jackson, Anthony and Jenny Kidd. “Introduction.” In Performing Heritage: Research, Practice, and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation. Edited by Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd, 1-8. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.

Johnson, Katherine M. “Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography,” Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193-206.

Kidwell, Jennifer and Scott R. Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game. Unpublished theatrical script shared with author, 2016.

Kidwell, Jennifer and Scott R. Sheppard. “Playing Underground,” interview in program for “The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game,” Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., April 4-29, 2018, 6-10.

King, LaGarrett J. and Ashley N. Woodson. “Baskets of Cotton and Birthday Cakes: Teaching Slavery in Social Studies Classrooms.” Social Studies Education Review 6, no. 1 (Winter 2016/2017): 1-18.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Lindemann, Danielle J. Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Magelssen, Scott. “Performance as Learner-Driven Historiography.” In Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions, edited by Henry Bial and Scott Magelssen, 208-218. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Magelssen, Scott. Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Martin, Jeff. “‘You Are My Slave’: School’s Civil War Day Sparks Mom’s Ire.” Associated Press online. Oct. 13, 2017.

Mazza, Ed. “5th-Grader ‘Sold’ in Mock-Auction at New Jersey School.” Huffington Post. March 22, 2017.

Mitchell, Koritha. “Belief and Performance: Morrison and Me.” In Toni Morrison: Forty Years in the Clearing, edited by Carmen R. Gillespie, 245-261. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2012.

Pinsky, Dana and Tania G. Levey. “‘A World Turned Upside Down’: Emotional Labour and the Professional Dominatrix.” Sexualities 18, no. 4 (June 2015): 438–458.

Post, Tina. “‘Is That What We Wanted?’: Staging Slavery’s Affective Scripts.” Modern Drama 62, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 539-564.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 773–97.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Tollafield, K.A. “Living History: Using Drama in the Social Studies Classroom.” In Teaching Drama in the Classroom, edited by J.K. Dowdy and S. Kaplan, 175-177. SensePublishers, 2011.

Willis, Emma. Metatheatrical Dramaturgies of Violence: Staging the Role of Theatre. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Worthington, Tracy A. “Letting Students Control Their Own Learning: Using Games, Role-Plays, and Simulations in Middle School U.S. History Classrooms.” Social Studies 109, no. 2 (2018): 136-150.


  • Scott Magelssen, “Performance as Learner-Driven Historiography,” in Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions, ed. Henry Bial and Scott Magelssen (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010), 209.
  • Scott Magelssen, Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014).
  • Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 192.
  • Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture, 194.
  • Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 2.
  • Vanessa Agnew, “Introduction: What is Reenactment?” Criticism 46, no. 3 (2004): 327.
  • Agnew, “Introduction: What is Reenactment?” 335.
  • See, for example, artist Dread Scott’s 2019 “Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” and the historical interpretation work of Cheyney McKnight (Not Your Momma’s History) and Marvin Alonzo Greer (MAG the historian).
  • Stephen Gapps. “Mobile Monuments: Commemoration and Historical ReEnactment,” in Historical Re-Enactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn, ed. Iain MacCalman and Paul Pickering (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 50-62. Katherine M. Johnson, “Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography,” Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193-206.
  • Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd, “Introduction,” in Performing Heritage: Research, Practice, and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation, ed. Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 1.
  • Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game (unpublished theatrical script shared with author, 2016), 19. Observations of the play in performance are drawn from: “The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game,” written and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, dir. Taibi Magar, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., April 7, 2018.
  • I use “first-person living history interpretation” to differentiate between those living historians at heritage sites and museums who take on the “impression” or persona of a historical figure from the first person (e.g., “I woke at dawn to milk the cows this morning”) for site visitors and those who, though dressed in period clothing and demonstrating historic customs or practices, describe their activities in the third person (e.g., “farmers in this period would have woken at dawn to milk the cows”).
  • Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann, “Introduction: What is Reenactment Studies?” in The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies, ed. Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann (New York: Routledge, 2019), 1.
  • Agnew, Lamb, and Tomann, “Introduction: What is Reenactment Studies?”
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 3.
  • Agnew, “Introduction: What is Reenactment?”, 330.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 4.
  • Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 4.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 21-22.
  • The lobby display at the Woolly Mammoth for Ars Nova’s 2018 production of Underground Railroad Game included the opportunity to play many of the tabletop board games and computer games that are marketed as educational materials for classroom use. These included Freedom: The Underground Railroad (Academy Games), The Underground Railroad Game (Pressman; Black Heritage Series), and Mission US: Flight to Freedom (Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
  • Tracy A. Worthington, “Letting Students Control Their Own Learning: Using Games, Role-Plays, and Simulations in Middle School U.S. History Classrooms,” Social Studies 109, no. 2 (2018): 136; K.A. Tollafield, “Living History: Using Drama in the Social Studies Classroom,” in Teaching Drama in the Classroom, ed. J.K. Dowdy and S. Kaplan (SensePublishers, 2011), 175; Ian Cardall, “Simulation and History: What Actually Happens in the Classroom?” Teaching History 43 (1985): 14.
  • Most notably, children have been made to stand on a simulated auction block for sale, have been bound or yelled at to simulate the conditions of captivity and slavery, and have been sorted in the classroom according to their race. See, for example: Anne Branigin, “California High School Sparks Criticism for Using Slave-Ship Role-Play to Teach Students History,” The Root, Sept. 18, 2017; Denise Dillon, “Georgia Mother Wants Changes After Daughter’s Field Trip Includes ‘Slave Auction’ Lesson,” Fox 5 Atlanta online, April 20, 2023; Ed Mazza, “5th-Grader ‘Sold’ in Mock-Auction at New Jersey School,” Huffington Post, March 22, 2017; Jeff Martin, “‘You Are My Slave’: School’s Civil War Day Sparks Mom’s Ire,” Associated Press, Oct. 13, 2017.
  • Michele Israel, “Tongue-Tied,” Learning for Justice Magazine, no. 46 (2014).
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, The Underground Railroad Game, 14.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, The Underground Railroad Game, 22.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, The Underground Railroad Game, 27.
  • Emma Willis, Metatheatrical Dramaturgies of Violence: Staging the Role of Theatre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 16.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, The Underground Railroad Game, 19.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Fantasy / phantasy, n.,” accessed March 3, 2020,
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, The Underground Railroad Game, 19.
  • Patricia Hill Collins, “The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood,” in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 133-160.
  • Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 41.
  • Koritha Mitchell, “Belief and Performance: Morrison and Me,” in Toni Morrison: Forty Years in the Clearing, ed. Carmen R. Gillespie, (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2012), 245-261.
  • Dina Pinsky and Tania G. Levey, “‘A World Turned Upside Down’: Emotional Labour and the Professional Dominatrix,” Sexualities 18, no. 4 (June 2015): 439.
  • See Pinsky and Levey, “‘A World Turned Upside Down’”; Danielle J. Lindemann, Dominatrix: Gender, Eroticism, and Control in the Dungeon, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
  • Mistress Velvet, who tragically passed away in 2021, used they/them pronouns. See James Factora, “In Memory of Mistress Velvet, the Revolutionary Dominatrix Who Fought for Sex Workers,” Them, May 17, 2021.
  • Quoted in Sydney Gore, “The Black Dominatrix Who Gets Reparations from Her Clients,” Paper Mag online, February 26, 2018.
  • “The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game,” written and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, dir. Taibi Magar, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., April 7, 2018.
  • Tina Post, “‘Is That What We Wanted?’: Staging Slavery’s Affective Scripts,” Modern Drama 62, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 539-564, see pages 560-1.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 28.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 4, 28.
  • Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire, 2003.
  • Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985).
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 29.
  • Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, “Playing Underground,” interview in program for “The Ars Nova Production of Underground Railroad Game,” Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., April 4-29, 2018: 9.
  • Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 778.
  • Robert Hadden, Reliving the Civil War: A Reenactor’s Handbook (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1996), 138.
  • Hadden, Reliving the Civil War, 139.
  • Agnew, “Introduction: What is Reenactment?,” 331.
  • Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” 777.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, Underground Railroad Game, 15.
  • LaGarrett J. King and Ashley N. Woodson, “Baskets of Cotton and Birthday Cakes: Teaching Slavery in Social Studies Classrooms,” Social Studies Education Review 6, no. 1 (Winter 2016/2017): 1-18.
  • Kidwell and Sheppard, “Playing Underground,” 3.