In “Confederates,” playwright Dominique Morisseau presents in alternating scenes the stories of two Black women in eras 160 years apart — a 19th century slave who becomes a spy for the Union Army, and a 21stcentury tenured college professor of political science who reacts to a mean-spirited prank.
Each story offers its satisfactions, in a production running at Signature Theater through April 17, with some nimble acting by its capable cast of five and some clever touches by director Stori Ayers. Putting these two stories together in the same play is an intriguing choice. Ultimately, though, “Confederates” works better theatrically than dramatically or thematically.
On rise, Sandra (Michelle Wilson), the professor, shows us a slide of a disturbing old photograph of a bare-bosomed Black woman nursing a white infant. She then projects the version of that photograph, Photoshopped with her face on it, that she found taped to her office door. “I’m not sure what it’s trying to say, but I demand an investigation.”
Suddenly, we hear an old Dixie tune from Stephen Foster, and the second scene has gone back in time to Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd), the slave, who is patching up her injured brother Abner (Elijah Jones), a runaway slave who has joined the Union Army. Abner has furtively returned to the plantation for Sara’s expert ministrations. Sara wants to join up too, but Abner says it’s not safe for a woman. Sara insists.
That old Dixie tune gets a pulsating hip-hop arrangement, and the actor changes from Abner to Malik before our eyes – both his costume and his demeanor. In this third scene, Malik, a Black student of Sandra’s, is arguing with her about a grade. Malik accuses her (or semi-politely suggests that) she has an unconscious bias against men.
In a later scene, Candice (Kenzie Ross), a white student who has a work-study job as Sandra’s assistant, accuses her of (or politely suggests that she has) an unconscious bias for Malik, at the expense of the white students.
Kenzie Ross also plays Missy Sue, the white daughter of Sara’s master, who, having lived up North, has a new-found consciousness, and recruits Sara to spy for the Union on her father, who is an official in the Confederate States of America.
The fifth actor in “Confederates,” Andrea Patterson, also does double duty, changing before our eyes like the other two. She portrays both LuAnne, another slave on the plantation, whom Sara doesn’t trust, and Jade, Sandra’s only black female colleague, whom Sandra doesn’t seem to trust.
The stories of Sandra and Sara unfold in parallel until they start to merge. We eventually learn, for example, that the two women are both connected to the disturbing photograph of the nursing slave.
“This is what it means to be at this institution,” says Sandra the professor near the end, talking about the college that employs her. “To know deep in your core that there will never be justice for you here.”
”This what it means to be in a peculiar institution,” says Sara immediately afterwards, talking about slavery. “Under its boot, everybody yo’ enemy. Even ones say they your friends.”
Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a play about Black involvement in the Civil War, Morisseau chose to expand the focus to include a contemporary setting with which she’s more familiar: She is best known for her Detroit trilogy (one of which, “Skeleton Crew,” had a recent Broadway run) and even has written specifically about a Black woman teacher before, in the excellent play “Pipeline.” In “Confederates,” Morisseau is adept at portraying the petty rivalries, resentments, suspicions and accusations that Sandra must contend with in 21st century academia. But the playwright’s pairing of Sandra’s situation with Sara’s, and giving it at least as much prominence, feels like a dive into polemics of the sort that Morisseau has avoided in her past plays. Sure, one can argue that the racism faced even by today’s Black professionals is a continuing legacy of slavery, one of America’s original sins, and that sexism remains far from eradicated. But it’s a struggle for me to view Sara’s and Sandra’s oppression as equivalent, which the structure of the play seems to be encouraging us to believe.
In interviews, Morisseau has said explicitly that both women are “fighting for freedom” in a world that views either of them as “expendable.” But she may be acknowledging in the play itself — cheekily, meta-theatrically — the skepticism that would likely greet such an assertion. The grade Sandra gave Malik that he’s arguing about is for a paper he wrote comparing the modern workforce to a plantation during the Civil War. “There are loopholes in your overall analysis,” Sandra tells him.
“Confederates” itself has some loops in its tone, and holes in its plots. The playwright is taking a few modest side trips away from her usual steady path of naturalism, as she admits in a note in the script. Several scenes are meant to be parody or farce or absurdist or at least ridiculous, but wind up less funny or pointed than a tad awkward or confusing (whether because of conception or execution, I’m not sure.)
Although both stories resolve a bit abruptly, the ending of the Sara plot is more satisfying than the end of the Sandra plot. This seems inevitable; I think most people would agree that the life-and-death choices facing a slave might be higher stakes than the possible lack of collegiality facing a tenured professor. It did dawn on me, though, that the playwright might want us to feel dissatisfied with what happens, just as Sandra is dissatisfied. Maybe that’s supposed to be a point of the play: Freedom has taken on more subtle shades of meaning now – not just the escape from bondage, but the right to respect, the expectation of support, the ability to fulfill one’s purpose in life – and so its attainment has proven more elusive.
Signature Theater through April 17, 2022
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: now through Apr 10” $35; Apr 12–17: $40–$80.
Written by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Stori Ayers
Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Ari Fulton, lighting designby Amith Chandrashaker and Emma Deane, sound design by Curtis Craig and Jimmy Keys, projection design by Katherine Freer, intimacy coordinator Ann James, production stage manager Jonathan Castanien, casting by Caparelliotis Casting
Cast: Elijah Jones as Abner/Malik, Kristolyn Lloyd as Sara, Andrea Patterson as LuAnne/Jade, Kenzie Ross as Missy Sue/Candice, and Michelle Wilson as Sandra.