Review: ‘Confederates’ Talks Race in Double Time

“This play is not like all of my others,” Dominique Morisseau writes in an author’s note in the script for “Confederates.” The new play, about two Black women living in different times but dealing with similar oppression, carries several signatures of Morisseau’s work and yet uses narrative techniques that are departures for her. It makes sense then that “Confederates,” which opened on Sunday at the Pershing Square Signature Theater, feels like an elegant experiment, thoughtful and put-together but not quite realizing its full potential.

“Confederates,” which was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Penumbra Theater, begins with Sandra (Michelle Wilson), a political science professor who has just found an offensive photoshopped image of an enslaved woman on her office door. A few minutes later she’s gone and we’ve stepped back in time to the Civil War, where we meet Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd), a fierce young enslaved woman who will become a spy for the Union.

These women and their contemporaries are the alternating focal points of the play, directed by Stori Ayers. The attention shifts so rapidly from one story to the other that they become two halves of a dialogue.

Michelle Wilson as Sandra, a college professor, in “Confederates.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Kristolyn Lloyd as Sara, an enslaved woman and Union spy in the Civil War era.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Rachel Hauck’s scenic design — two antique chairs, a bench and a side table with drawers, surrounded by the towering white columns and high balcony of a plantation house — is neutral and, at eye-level, uninspiring. But through the heights of the house’s architecture and the spaces between the columns, the set creates a dimension and depth that makes it seem as if the background extends into the ornate corridors and rooms of a Southern home.

Known for her Detroit cycle, including “Skeleton Crew,” which just completed its debut Broadway run last month, Morisseau typically opts for realism and traditional, chronological storytelling. In fact, she excels at it; she examines the intersections of race, class and gender through characters that feel as real as a neighbor you hear kicking off his boots at the end of a workday.

This play’s structure, however, is different. There’s a textbook quality to it; every scene baldly illustrates a theme, whether it’s the sexualization of Black women, the ways institutions turn Black women against one another, or how expectations of Black men and Black women differ. What action there is consists of arguments and discussions usually involving two or three people, with everything else taking place in the background. For Sara, that means the usual toils of the plantation and the not-so-distant gunshots of the war, which she imagines spells freedom. For Sandra, it’s her search for the perpetrator of the photo and her troubled relationships with her colleagues and students.

Morisseau blurs this binary by having the three other characters in the play double-cast: Abner (Elijah Jones), Sara’s brother who escaped the plantation to fight for the Union, is also Malik, one of Sandra’s students. In the past there’s Missy Sue (Kenzie Ross), the plantation owner’s daughter and Sara’s childhood friend; in the present, she is Candice, Sandra’s talkative student assistant. LuAnne (Andrea Patterson) is a house slave when she isn’t Jade, in the present day a colleague of Sandra’s. Morisseau cleverly mirrors the conversations between story lines, so, for example, Missy Sue naïvely adores her slave friend the way Candice idolizes her Black professor.

Jones, left, as Malik, a student of Sandra, right.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ayers’s direction, along with Ari Fulton’s clever tear-away costumes and Nikiya Mathis’s chic array of wigs and hairstylings, is liveliest in the transitions from the past to present, and in the production’s tiny anachronisms, like a slave giving dap. It appears that the play is going into more experimental territory as the characters’ entrances and exits begin to overlap across the timelines, but Ayers seems wary of doing anything more than having them pass like anonymous commuters at Port Authority. Too often her approach seems procedural, but there are moments when the direction shows spunk, as in the flashier transitions, when someone marches or struts to the music, which switches between old racist ballads like “Dixie” and “Oh! Susanna” to rhythmic original songs arranged by Jimmy Keys (a.k.a. J. Keys).

Though the show uses the ancillary characters as the points of contact between Sara’s world and Sandra’s, the two women themselves don’t actually meet. “Confederates” creates this tension between its two parts but doesn’t do anything with it. If Morisseau has built her stories with this inherent magic of alternating settings, allowing us to time-travel with her through a discussion of racial politics then and now, why not try to allow the worlds of the two protagonists to extend a bit more? Why not go bigger? Get more bizarre?

Because there’s a certain isolation to the story; we’re in the Big House or Sara’s cabin or we’re in a university office. “Confederates” wants to keep our eyes on the two main institutions here (slavery, academia), each of which breeds or fosters its own forms of oppression. Each scene so clearly illustrates a point in the play’s thesis on race that the stakes don’t seem real; we’re just in the realm of discourse.

At least Morisseau doesn’t let the pedagogic obscure the poetic. Her language is as gorgeous as always — and just as sharp. So a conversation about sexuality leads LuAnne to say, “Nature ain’t no slave. It move to its own rhythm,” using the terms of enslavement as a way to talk about the untamable lusts of the body. And Morisseau can dress up an atrocity in a metaphor without obscuring the horror beneath the surface, as when Sara describes seeing slaves “whipped so bad looked like their skin came alive and was crawling on they own flesh.”

Beautiful language that’s wedded to tales of adversity — the play is full of such paradoxes, another one being that “Confederates” is a work about racism that is truly funny. There’s a lightness to the satire, but it’s not in the writing alone; the roughly 90-minute production has a nimble cast.

From left, Kenzie Ross as the master’s daughter, Missy Sue, with Lloyd, as Sara. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Jones brings an animated repartee to his characters’ interactions, and Ross successfully plays up the cluelessness of her white characters (“OMIGOD. I was completely racist just then,” she exclaims as Candice, owl-eyed in shame with mouth agape). Patterson oozes cool as the brusque, sharpshooting Jade but has less heft to her characters.

Wilson embodies the poised and self-assured academic in a red power suit, but the character doesn’t allow her to show much range, while Sara is the play’s most rewarding role, incorporating both a brassy brand of satire and ferocious politico-historical oration. Lloyd easily hits the comic notes and channels a Harriet Tubman-esque bearing in Sara but isn’t as comfortable holding the deeper emotions of the character.

Morisseau is a fabulous playwright, so much so that even in her plays’ flaws her brilliance still shines through. And seeing an artist try something new in her art is exciting. What’s even more exciting than that? Anticipating how much further — in her settings, in her stories — she can go.

Through April 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

Related Articles

Back to top button