By: Brian Scott Lipton
March 27, 2022: America has long touted itself as the land of the free and the home of the brave, but “freedom” of all sorts has long proved elusive for so many of our citizens, especially African-Americans. That subject arises, sometimes subtly within many of the works of the great playwright Dominique Morriseau; but it’s front and center in “Confederates,” her striking new work, now at the Signature Theatre Company.
Her thought-provoking play – sometimes deadly earnest and sometimes surprisingly (but intentionally) hilarious under Stori Ayers’ accomplished direction – focuses on two strong-willed African-American women, born over 150 years apart, but both trying to attain their own version of “freedom.”
In the case of Sandra (a commanding Michelle Wilson), a tenured college professor who teaches about slavery and institutional racism, she might seem to have attained the American dream, Except for the fact that the show opens with her explaining that someone on campus has put an offensive photo on her office door — one in which her face has been superimposed so she is suckling the breast of a female slave.
This kind of provocation proves to be just one of the obstacles she faces, not just as one of two African-American professors on campus, but as a woman in America. Her marriage is disintegrating because her husband doesn’t really support the idea of a “working wife” (especially, as we learn, one who can’t seem to bear children). She struggles to navigate the accusation that she is “unconsciously biased” against the obviously smart Malik (the excellent Elijah Jones), one of her classes’ only African-American students; she grapples with the over-sensitivity (and possible insecurity) of her white assistant Candice (a hilarious Kenzie Ross); and, above all she fights with another African-American professor Jade (a superb Andrea Patterson) over their different methods of teaching and engaging students. Indeed, for Sandra, the right to freely teach her students “her way” is perhaps the battle the matters to her the most.
Her struggle is real, but it does seem slightly unequal to the one weighing on Sara (an absolutely brilliant Kristolyn Lloyd), a plantation slave in the South yearning to make it northward. Joining her runaway brother Abner (Jones) in the Union army isn’t really an option, Then, opportunity knocks with the return of Missy Sue (Ross), the daughter of the plantation’s owner and her childhood “friend” – who is actually in love with Sara. Smart and savvy – and able to read – Sara puts a plan in motion, eventually with the help of fellow slave and frenemy Luann (Patterson) that could give them all liberty – or death.
The Civil War-era scenes are full of contemporary speech and directed in an often over-the-top, slightly farcical manner that can seem disconcerting – especially in contrast to the seriousness of the present-day sections. Indeed, despite the universally terrific performances, these scenes sometimes come very close to watching an episode of “The Carol Burnett Show.” But maybe that’s all part of Morriseau’s plan.
Still, when we reach the highly dramatic conclusion of the 90-minute work, it’s abundantly clear that freedom, as hard-earned as Sara’s and as still-in-jeopardy as Sandra’s, is no laughing matter.
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, New York.
March 8–April 24, 2022 Opening March 27, 2022
Photography: Monique Carboni