Dominique Morisseau suggests that the college is the new plantation
It’s only March, but already this year New York audiences have been treated to pieces like Aleshea Harris’ “On Sugarland” and Joshua Harmon’s “Prayer for the French Republic.” These are big plays, lasting around three hours each, with great actors creating vibrant families and communities on stage to tell important stories. Not only do we learn, we experience.
Dominique Morisseau has a lot to teach us in her new play, “Confederates,” which opened Sunday at the Signature Theater at the Pershing Square Signature Center, and she’s giving herself about 90 minutes to get the job done.
During the Civil War, slave Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd) bandages an injured runaway slave turned Union soldier (Elijah Jones) who sponsors her to “stay safe” on the plantation. Sara argues, “I want to die like a man too.” Later in “Confederates,” Sara is sexually proposed to by the slave owner’s dimwitted daughter, Miss Sue (Kenzie Ross), who, like so many white women of her class, indulges in lesbianism. (It’s called the “straight gaze,” where LGBTQ is used as shorthand to connote decadence, perversion, or oppression.) Sara also argues with fellow slave girl, LuAnne (Andrea Patterson), who functions as the master’s concubine. .
The story above is told in a few scenes that take around 45 minutes. They are intercut with the other half of “Confederates,” which tells the story of a tenured college professor, Sandra (Michelle Wilson), recently subjected to outrage at having a racist photo posted on the door of her his office.
Sandra can’t help but argue with her colleagues and students: there’s a student, Malik (Jones), who thinks she favors female students; an untitled instructor, Jade (Patterson), who accuses Sara of viewing her as competition; and a silly assistant, Candice (Ross, again proving she’s no Butterfly McQueen), who must have scored around 200 on her SATs. Morisseau takes a page from “Gone with the Wind”. She makes characters of one race the butt of all her jokes.
Sandra learns very quickly. After her interviews with Malik and Jade, she gives the student an A-plus on her rewritten paper and she recommends the instructor for tenure. Sandra comes to regret both decisions in about two minutes of scene time.
In addition to racism and sexism, Sara and Sandra share the burden of not being able to have children. Lloyd and Wilson carry the many burdens of their respective characters with restive aplomb.
Morisseau is at his best with the play’s many verbal fights. Only George Bernard Shaw can make us change our sympathies faster. Handled with much less finesse is the easy symmetry of past and present stories presented here. Stori Ayes’ brutal directing aptly showcases sweeping time jumps with fun and flashy costume changes. Ari Fulton is the designer.
Before giving Malik that A-plus, Sandra critiques his article, saying, “I think you can draw more concise lines between corporate America and the plantation.” Morisseau has no problem drawing those lines. She gets the job done in record time.
Robert Hofler, senior theater critic for TheWrap, has worked as an editor for Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson”, “Party Animals”, and “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos”. His latest book, “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne”, is out now.