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Theatre in Review: Confederates (Signature Theatre Company)

Andrea Patterson, Michelle Wilson. Photo: Monique Carboni.

Maybe it's the pandemic; having pulled through last two tumultuous years, Dominique Morisseau understandably has plenty to get off her chest. This time, however, the gifted playwright may have more on her mind than one play can comfortably handle. In contrast to Detroit '67, Paradise Blue, Pipeline, and Skeleton Crew, all notable for meticulous construction and vividly drawn characters, Confederates has a wild, helter-skelter quality; it's a caustic, time-jumping comedy with a two-part dramatic structure, oddly lacking a connecting corridor between its parallel narratives.

It begins on an acridly amusing note with Sandra, an academic and public intellectual of note. (One of her students gushes, "We've all read your books before joining the class. You know freaking Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson. You've been a pundit on CNN and MSNBC. You're not afraid to call out white supremacy in the simplest of ways and you don't even make white people feel bad when you do it.") By way of introduction, Sandra, a political science specialist, ticks off her familiarity with every major book, exhibition, film, or play about slavery, including the "freedom papers of Frederick Douglass," Slave Play, Father Comes Home From the Wars, Birth of a Nation and The Birth of a Nation ("very different movies," she is quick to note), all the way up to Django Unchained ("though there are serious debates to be had about the qualifications of that one," she quickly adds).

Having gotten the audience laughing, albeit a bit nervously, Sandra silences the room by introducing a photograph of a bare-breasted Black slave woman, nursing a white baby. It's a startlingly powerful image, one so provocative that, on the way out of the theatre, we are handed a statement by the projection designer, Katherine Freer, practically begging our pardon for using it. But before we have had a chance to fully absorb it, it is replaced by a duplicate -- with Sandra's head photoshopped in. She is the victim of an ugly prank and wants the perpetrator roundly punished.

The scene abruptly shifts to a Southern plantation during the Civil War, where Sara, a slave, is attending to her wounded brother, Abner, now in the Union Army. This already-dangerous situation is compounded by the arrival of Missy Sue, the estate's resident Scarlett O'Hara, returning from a failed marriage with big plans that include seducing Sara and enlisting her as a spy for the North. Before long, Sara, previously consigned to the cotton fields, is working indoors, tasked with rifling through the papers belonging to Missy Sue's father -- who has a vaguely articulated connection to the Confederate Army -- and leaking the information to Abner. Sara tries to wriggle out of the situation, rapidly muttering, "Sorry about your husband running off and you being barren and your daddy not paying you any attention. Must be real hard on you. You take care of yourself now." But she has little choice except to comply.

The link, such as it is, is that Sandra and Sara are both put-upon Black women, deflecting others who seek to use them for their own purposes. Sandra's plot, which has its whodunit aspects, puts her in conflict with Malik, a student who asserts that she is biased against young Black men, and Jade, a new hire on the teaching staff, who suspects Sandra doesn't support her bid for tenure. (Sandra's decision to wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt in class is, apparently, an aggravating factor among white and Black students alike.) Adding to her woes, Sandra's marriage is in divorce court, in part of because of her inability to conceive. Meanwhile, back on the plantation, Sara feeds vital information to Abner while fending off Missy Sue's embraces and struggling to deflect the suspicions of LuAnne, another house slave and the designated mistress of Missy Sue's father.

Both narrative lines are engaging, informed by a tell-it-like-it-is wit; each could be the basis for a blistering full-length satire. If Sandra's plot has more oomph to it, it is because Morisseau gives her sharp-elbowed characters plenty of room to express themselves, setting up an intrigue that will be all too familiar to anyone with passing knowledge of academe. But both storylines want fuller development, being insufficiently realized and arbitrarily plotted. Furthermore, each narrative descends into a mass of farce complications, leading to rushed conclusions that end up with Sara and Sandra in a mutual venting of well-earned fury.

And really Sandra and Sara's situations don't match up. Sara faces torture and death if caught spying. (Her unexpected sexual assault on Missy Sue -- which, to be clear, is enthusiastically welcomed -- also comes with great peril.) By contrast, the web of suspicions, micro-aggressions, and political maneuvering that ensnares Sandra may be toxic, even degrading, but it is unlikely to kill her. Both characters' predicaments are unacceptable; still, the playwright's compare-and-contrast approach feels, in some fundamental way, out of balance.

Stori Ayers' direction is strong when handling one-on-one confrontations, less so in taming the play's structure, but she has assembled a cast of actors who straddle past and present with remarkable ease. Michelle Wilson's Sandra is the kind of authoritative presence who can't help intimidating everyone else in the room; she spars effectively with Elijah Jones as Malik, who defends with considerable vigor his paper on the plantation-like conditions of modern corporate life, and with Andrea Patterson's Jade, who can't shake the suspicion that Sandra is quietly betraying her. (Patterson, who made a strong impression last fall as a recovering drug addict undergoing a political awakening in Cullud Wattah, is equally strong as Jade and the vengeful, double-dealing LuAnne.) Kristolyn Lloyd makes the most of Sara's wisecracking, seen-it-all demeanor. Most of the laughs, however, are harvested by Kenzie Ross, lending extra zing to Missy Sue (an otherwise standard Southern belle caricature) and going to town as Sandra's airheaded, gossip-prone assistant. ("Anyway, I'm aware of my white privilege so I don't have a problem with it.")

One strength of Ayers' production is that it facilitates instantaneous transitions between then and now. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck wraps the action in a Greek Revival surround that could be Tara or the faculty office building at a Southern university. Ari Fulton's costumes allow the actors to make rapid-fire changes in full audience view. The lighting by Amith Chandrashaker and Emma Deane reshapes the stage with cinematic fluency. The nifty sound design by Curtis Craig and Jimmy Keys pairs traditional versions of "Dixie," "Oh, Susanna" (featuring its original, shockingly racist lyrics), and "Shortnin' Bread" with contemporary hip-hop samplings and EDM remixes. Freer's projections include a last-minute coup de théâtre that is best left unexplained, the better to preserve its effect.

The play climaxes with Sandra and Sara seizing the stage to call out their abusers and reaffirm that they are nobody's victims. "I'm no longer your tolerant negro," announces Sandra. Sara echoes the sentiment, using a word that we don't publish. It's a strongly written finale that, at the performance I attended, carried extra weight for an audience dispirited by last week's television spectacle featuring Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and a pack of right-wing hyenas. This scene is both the play's closer and, I suspect, its raison d'être but it may make you nostalgic for Morisseau's earlier works, which are more solidly constructed. (This is also the second or third play this season to dispense with a curtain call because it ends on a note of anger and contempt for the audience. It was arguably powerful the first time, but already the thrill is gone; yesterday's shocker is today's cliché.)

Anything by Morisseau is worth seeing, and Confederates may in the long run be seen as a major transitional work. At this moment, however, it looks like two half-realized plays stuck together, sometimes effectively, sometimes awkwardly. Both Sandra and Sara (as well as their confederates) deserve room to breathe. --David Barbour


(28 March 2022)

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