Theater Critic: Les Confédérés by Dominique Morisseau

From Confederates, at the Signature Theater.
Photo: Monique Carboni

The first thing you see in Dominique Morisseau’s new play Confederates is a century-old photograph of a nursing woman. It’s important enough that we see this slide several times during the play, and even after the show, the workers at the Signature Theater will give us a short note explaining where they got the stock footage. Instead of holding a curtain call (actors never bow), as we walk out of the theater, projection designer Kate Freer brings our attention back to the subject of the photo – an African nanny, seated with a baby white within it. In his note, Freer asks the subject for permission to use his photo. The woman is long gone, so Freer has to imagine her consent — in a story so full of loopholes, coercion, and disappearance, a supposed connection is better than none at all.

The person showing us the slide first is Sandra (Michelle Wilson), a black political science professor who just found a version of it — Photoshopped with her own face — posted on her doorstep. She insists that the university investigate. The play then cuts sharply to the 1860s, where slave Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd, formidable) sews a wound to her runaway brother Abner (Elijah Jones), before smuggling him and his new soldier’s uniform out. ‘Union, from his cabin. In an instant, Abner spins around, takes off his cap to reveal a modern haircut and becomes Malik, one of Sandra’s students, who is fighting to raise his grade. The show quickly switches between Sandra’s and Sara’s lives, with the actors in one storyline shedding their bustles or headgear to become characters in the other. Rachel Hauck’s clever design, an alternate white-pillared portico, recalls both the plantation and the quad, and Ari Fulton’s costumes begin the play by carefully separating the periods, but as the text begins to do melt the time barrier, the clothes too.

Ominously, Malik’s article focuses on the links between what he calls the “modern plantation” of corporate America and the pre-war South. Morisseau also sees connections. Abner doubts that a woman can help in the war, and Malik clearly resents his teacher’s feminism. Sara’s silly young mistress, Missy Sue (Kenzie Ross), has abolitionist plans, which she wants Sara to carry out, and Sandra’s bubbly office assistant, Candice (also Ross), carries out a similar type of sabotage disguised as support. Even other black women are not trustworthy. Sara’s relationship with fellow house slave Luanne (Andrea Patterson) is strained as Luanne sleeps with the master; Luanne’s modern counterpart is Jade, a young black teacher who questions Sandra’s solidarity. Sandra comes to believe that anyone around her could have posted the picture on her door. The academy has its overseers, its dogs and its whips – it just can’t name them.

Time bends, and we do not flinch. The large deviations of the play from reality, asserted with such confidence, are never confusing. the little disbeliefs, though – those kinda itch. Would a university allow a current student, even if she is an assistant, to get her professor’s email password? Also, in a key point, Malik and the other students argue over placement in Sandra’s schedule, but her office hours (a phrase invoked six times) means they might just pass. The more (crammed) details the characters offer about inboxes, tenure, and bibliographies, the less compelling they become.

In a preface to her screenplay, Morisseau prepares the reader: She deviates from her usual strategy of social-themed naturalism. It’s not like his vintage pieces like Detroit ’67 or his vivid domestic dramas like Pipeline, she says; Confederates “is not as serious as the others.” It seems to warn the reader, but it is more of a promise. Morisseau’s voice becomes fiercer and richer as it moves away from naturalism. His sharp humor and flensant rhetoric, familiar from his public letters and program notes, finally come to exert their full power on stage. it reminded me of her Skeleton Crew, just closed on Broadway. Here, too, his minutiae seemed out of tune, with details of the factory floor and union organization sculpted by dramatic exigency rather than precision. But in this room, more weight rested on such details. Confederates reaches and catches different and unspeakable things. She’s good as a poet of menace, better still when writing what she describes as “the circus,” the cudgel and gallop of satire, done at breakneck speed.

And in such a serious prank, direction is crucial. Stori Ayers keeps her cast almost in the air – the speed is so intense that the few moments of stillness hit the audience like brick walls. Lloyd’s Sara usually provides both the beat and the wall; her charisma on stage bends the show around her. Compared to the other performers, she is tiny; when she holds Abner’s pistol, she seems barely tall enough to lift it. But then she rushes behind a column, and suddenly Lloyd is moving like a Marine, clearing his corners, checking his sixes. Morisseau’s game also assumes that there is an enemy every turn. This distrust also applies to those of us watching: the moment when even the most ruthless plays admit they love the audience comes the curtain call, and Confederates refuses to give us one. Instead, we end up with the note to the woman in the photo. Morisseau wrote a comedy about black women ready to burn down their institutions. She provides no closure other than rage. But in the end, we can still turn to the image, with its infinitely responsible mystery. Who did this humiliating thing to the nanny? To Sarah? To Sandra? There is no need for an investigation. We know, we know, we know.

Confederates is at the Signature Theater until April 17.

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