Theater review by Adam Feldman
Although she is outraged at the image that has been anonymously placed on her office door—her own face, photoshopped onto the body of a topless and nursing 19th-century Black slave—Sandra (Michelle Wilson) has a meticulous academic temperament, and she wants to be clear. “There is nothing slavery that is off limits for me,” she says in the opening scene of Dominique Morisseau absorbing Confederates. “No shame in my own enslaved heritage.” Morisseau adopts a similar stance in the play that ensues, which juxtaposes Sandra’s position as a tenured professor at a mostly white university with that of Sara (Kristolyn Llloyd), a field worker on a Southern plantation during the Civil War. The playwright embraces her enslaved characters, with personal warmth and even humor; she imbues them, à la An Octoroon, with flashes of modern attitude.
Because Morisseau is best known as the accomplished author of straightforward social dramas like Pipeline and Skeleton Crew, the audacious shifts of timeframe and tone in Confederates come as a bit of a surprise. She pulls it off with power and finesse. For most of the play, secondary characters share scenes with Sara, then strip away parts of Ari Fulton’s costumes to show new layers as modern characters interacting with Sandra. Sara’s brother Abner, a runaway now serving the Union army, reappears as a promising student who thinks Sandra has it out for him; a predatory Southern belle (Kenzie Ross) morphs into an eager white assistant; and, in Confederates’s most charged exchanges, a fellow slave (Andrea Patterson) who has been sharing the master’s bed returns as a hard-nosed young faculty colleague of Sandra’s.
Director Stori Ayers and the very fine cast of this Signature Theatre production—led by the convincing and compelling Wilson and the rigid, purposeful Lloyd—deftly handle these back-to-back back-and-forths. Though carefully structured, Confederates doesn’t feel schematic; the relationships in the paired two-person scenes are in some sense inverted, but they have more in common than is immediately apparent. Like Sandra, Sara is unable to have children—she is ”barren as the forest in the winter,” which frees her from being forced into the role of mammy—and both of them are in the position of navigating institutions and perceptions that define them through their race and gender. As Confederates builds to a worthy climax, Morisseau offers an insightful portrait of people striving, both within and beyond their own moments, toward a greater sense of union.
Confederates. Signature Theatre (Off Broadway). By Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Stori Ayers. With Michelle Wilson, Kristolyn Lloyd, Andrea Patterson, Elijah Jones, Kenzie Ross. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.