Dominique Morisseau has always been interested in time and space. The settings of her plays have usually been integral to the story and drama. Her characters are who they are very much because of when and where they are.
In this way, Confederates is a departure for the celebrated and exciting playwright. On the one hand, the play is set in two specific times and places—a southern plantation during the civil war and a professor’s office at a contemporary university—but in a deeper and richer way, Confederates is set in the more than 150 years that separate the two spaces and the indeterminate world to come. With Confederates, Morisseau leaves the confines of realism that she has negotiated so well to this point in her career and offers a challenging new paradigm, here as a way to examine the familiar and evolving trials of Black women and their successes in America.
The play unfolds over two parallel tracks, switching from scene to scene between its two settings. On the plantation, Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd) tries to remain resilient and maintain her dignity as a slave, while also pursuing every furtive opportunity for resistance and subversion. Whether it is learning to read or trying to slip strategic information about the confederate army to her brother, Abner (Elijah James), a runaway slave fighting with the Union, Sara refuses to acquiesce to her bondage.
In the parallel contemporary story, Sandra (Michelle Wilson), a tenured professor of Political Science, finds herself the target of a racist attack. Somebody has photoshopped her head onto the picture of a Black slave woman breastfeeding a white baby, and posted the photo on her office door. The university has launched an investigation, but Sandra is unconvinced that it will succeed or have any serious impact. Meanwhile, she faces accusations of racism, sexism, and betrayal from her students and colleagues, all while trying to navigate a divorce.
While Sara and Sandra anchor their respective storylines, the women’s interlocutors and antagonists share both spaces. Elijah Jones, for example, embodies both Sara’s brother and a disgruntled and disrespectful student of Sandra’s. Kenzie Ross is the white mistress of Sara’s plantation and later Sandra’s zealous student assistant. And Andrea Patterson is a fellow slave of Sara’s who cozies up to the plantation owner, and later becomes Jade, a Black colleague vying for tenure and critical of what she perceives as a lack of support from Sandra.
Morisseau’s comment with this dual casting seems to be that the affronts to dignity, outsized expectations, and challenges to achievement facing Black women remain more or less consistent throughout American history, despite any perceived or even real progress. Certainly Sandra is not a slave, but just as certainly she faces hurdles to professional and personal success that are not in front of her white or male colleagues.
Stori Ayers directs with a keen eye for constructing two worlds that are at once quite distinct and agonizingly similar. In the same mode, Jones, Ross, and Patterson do impressive work in their dual roles: each gives us two distinct characters while allowing for enough resonance to capture Morisseau’s interest in continuity.
In part, Lloyd and Wilson each have only a singular task of creating Sara and Sandra respectively, and each shines: both characters are resilient and defiant, but also show their wounds and weariness. And so, in another important aspect, Lloyd and Wilson are both contributing to the larger portrait of Black womanhood that is Morisseau’s concern in Confederates. They show clearly that they are two links in a long and diverse chain full of many of the same struggles and joys.
The show has no curtain call for its performers, ceding its closing image instead to projections of words by writers and activists across the lineage of Black feminist thought. It is a provocative and powerful closing to a play less concerned with the individual stories it tells and more focused on the stubborn, lasting narrative those stories evoke.