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Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 27, 2022

Michelle Wilson
Photo by Monique Carboni
If nothing else, this week's cringe-inducing televised national drama revealed the obstacles facing African American women vying for positions of leadership. As the Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson adroitly deflected the Republicans' racist and sexist mudslinging during the Senate confirmation hearings, and in the process showed the numerous ways in which Black women are publicly patronized, discredited, and humiliated. In her new play, Confederates, currently at Signature Theatre, Dominique Morriseau fixes her sight on academia and, mirroring the Senate spectacle, the play shows the depths of institutionalized racism and sexism even within presumed bastions of liberal ideals.

Confederates focuses on two Black women from separate eras. We first meet Sandra (in a forceful and multilayered performance by Michelle Wilson), a modern-day political science professor. A respected and renowned scholar, she is also a pundit on both CNN and MSNBC. As one of the characters says about her, she is "not afraid to call out white supremacy in the simplest of ways," and she doesn't "even make white people feel bad" as she does it.

Sandra is the target, however, of a shameful smear in which someone posted a Photoshopped image of her face on the body of a Black slave woman suckling a white baby. In trying to root out the source of the action, the play shows how all college constituents are potential suspects because of Sandra's perceived threat. Black student Malik (an excellent Elijah Jones), for instance, thinks she is biased toward Black women students as supposedly evidenced by his course grade. Candice (comically played with exaggerated obsequiousness by Kenzie Ross), Sandra's white student assistant, claims that other white students believe Sandra, who wore a Black-Lives-Matter T-shirt to a class session, gives preferential treatment to their Black classmates. And Jade (a fiery Andrea Patterson), a faculty member going up for tenure, accuses Sandra of thwarting her promotion in order to protect the limited space offered women of color.

Kristolyn Lloyd, Elijah Jones, and Andrea Patterson
Photo by Monique Carboni
The scenes at the university alternate with the events on a southern plantation during the Civil War. Enslaved Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd, perfectly balancing willfulness and humorous practicality) aids her brother Abner (Jones), who is a runaway slave and serving as a Union soldier. Although Abner will not allow Sara to get involved with the war directly, Missy Sue (Ross), the slave owner's daughter, implicates Sara in a spy scheme that involves intercepting messages between the master and the Confederate army. As a result, Sara must contend with LuAnne (Patterson), a distrustful house slave and favorite of the master, and who is dubious of Sara's encroachment.

Directed by Stori Ayers, the production moves smoothly between the 21st and 19th centuries. (The transitions are greatly helped by the stately scenic design by Rachel Hauck, picturesque lighting by Amith Chandrashaker and Emma Deane, period-specific songs with sound design by Curtis Craig and Jimmy Keys, and especially the fluid costumes by Ari Fulton.) Sandra and Sara are presented as transgenerational confederates, rebellious Black women standing up to and against the indignities of racism, but the contexts do not quite cohere. Additionally, because the other roles are double-cast, the different stories would seem to complement each other. But do they? To apply a criticism that Sandra lodges against Malik's paper comparing the institution of slavery to Black workers in corporate America, the play "fails to draw an effective parallel." I spent a good deal of intellectual energy, for example, trying to understand the connections between the plantation and the American university.

The play has a great deal of humor, and, indeed, the farcical elements make the trenchant message more palatable. Regrettably, this has the collateral effect of undercutting the urgency of the drama. That is, Sara's sedition comes across as a situation-comedy caper rather than a life-or-death act of bravery. And in the scene between Malik and Sandra, which is reminiscent of the professor-student dynamic in David Mamet's Oleanna, I was paying attention to verbal clues that might eventually ensnare one or both of the characters. Alas, the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse never commenced.

The final words of the play echo Sojourner Truth's famous speech from the 1851 Women's Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. In its presentation of Black women defiantly insisting upon social justice, Confederates pays tribute to the legacies of Truth, Harriet Tubman, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and many others. This week, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson may be added to that roster of confederates.

Through April 17, 2022
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York NY
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