‘Confederates’ follows Black women in a dangerous game
Dominique Morisseau’s new Broadway play zigzags its way toward freedom
In the world constructed by Dominique Morisseau in her new off-Broadway play, there are two kinds of confederates: the ones who think you’re too radical, and the ones who don’t think you’re radical enough.
“Confederates” is a loaded word in the United States. As a capitalized proper noun, it refers to the collection of Southern pro-slavery states and the people who supported them. But before 1860, a “confederate” could refer to a buddy. An ally. A co-conspirator.
So what kind of confederate is Morisseau referring to in Confederates? Try all of the above.
Two years ago, a pernicious respiratory virus shook up the world and everything in it. Morisseau took the opportunity to experiment with form, bouncing between earnest naturalism, satire and farce with a subject that too often gets bogged down in solemnity and self-indulgent soliloquy. Usually, Morisseau’s plays are straight-ahead. This one zigzags.
Directed by the multihyphenate Stori Ayers — she produced and acted in Morisseau’s Blood at the Root and directed a Geffen Playhouse production of Paradise Blue — Confederates moves back and forth in time between a Civil War-era plantation house and a modern-day university. At its center are two Black women, tethered by legacy and history, trying to get free.
One, Sandra (Michelle Wilson), has recently obtained tenure as a political science professor at a predominantly white university, where she is an extreme minority and therefore subject to everyone’s projections, expectations and judgments regarding her status as a Black face in a high place. The other, Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd), is a savvy enslaved woman who sees an opportunity in the Civil War and is using a shift from the fields to the big house as an opportunity to spy for the Union Army.
The neoclassical columns of Rachel Hauck’s scenic design evoke the stateliness of both a plantation house and the campus of a Southern university, and the play moves back and forth in time between both. Though a specific location is not given, my mind kept traveling to the University of Virginia and the eerie aura that comes from being in a place rife with the ghosts of the enslaved people who built and tended to it.
Sandra and Sara are social tacticians, leading parallel lives as they navigate their own needs and those of the people around them. They are also the only two characters in the production who are not doubled. The other three actors in the cast, a Black man, a light-skinned Black woman and a white woman, switch between modern-day America and the 1860s. These are the supposed allies, or confederates, of Sandra and Sara, and yet neither woman can catch much of a break from them.
Like Sandra, Morisseau has ascended to rarefied heights. If someone were to ask for a recommendation of what to see to understand the magic of theater when all cylinders are firing the way they should, I would tell them to see a Morisseau play. Morisseau, known for her Detroit cycle, could keep writing in the rhythms of those works: Skeleton Crew, Detroit ’67 and Pipeline. She has more than earned the title of, as New York Magazine critic Helen Shaw has dubbed her, “the modern-day bard of Detroit.” I have, on multiple occasions, referred to her as “feminist August Wilson.”
As both the playwright of Skeleton Crew and the book writer of Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, she is the rare Black woman writer who has had multiple works produced on Broadway, netting a Tony nomination for the book of Ain’t Too Proud. She is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. And like Sandra, Morisseau knows what it’s like to play traffic cop, juggling reactions to her work and expectations about how she should exercise her elevated status within American theater, which often recognizes Black performance with Tony nominations, but which has flailed when it comes to Black theater artists who lack the visibility of actors. (No Black woman has won a Tony for playwriting, book writing, costume design, orchestrations or directing in the history of the award, and only a few have ever been nominated.)
A Morisseau play feels reliably thrilling because she has mastered the formal elements of theater. Take Skeleton Crew, for instance, which debuted on Broadway earlier this year, starring Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad, and directed by a frequent collaborator of Morisseau’s, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Every decision, every line feels necessary and justified, distinct and beautiful, trimmed of self-indulgent frippery. When combined with a cast working at the height of their talents, Morisseau’s plays exhibit a rhythm that pulls you in, each character balanced and in concert with the others. Rashad gave such an incredible performance as an unhoused lesbian union rep at a Michigan sheet metal manufacturing plant that I lost myself in it, and allowed myself to forget about her odious public statements about Bill Cosby, survivors and rape culture for the duration of the play. Armed with Morisseau’s words, Rashad conducted a clinic on disappearing into another person and the puddled hem of her oversize dungarees.
Confederates is a departure because it feels unsettled in a way Morisseau’s previous works do not — at its conclusion, the actors do not return to the stage for a traditional curtain call. Instead, their absence functions like a mic drop, or like jazz musician Miles Davis playing a concert with his back turned to the white folks in the audience. Maybe both. It’s a decision that invites intrigue and discomfort, elements that are tricky to wield. And, perhaps because this is a departure for Morisseau, she has Sandra prepare us for that, having the play open with the power-suited professor demanding an investigation.
A photograph of an enslaved Black wet nurse cradling and feeding a white baby in her arms has been plastered on the door of Sandra’s office. The photograph has been altered, with Sandra’s face photoshopped onto the enslaved woman’s body, implying that Sandra has chosen to debase herself as the female equivalent of an Uncle Tom. And before anything else takes place, we get an opus. A declaration. A refusal to be misread. Sandra delivers the lines to an unseen university committee, facing the audience directly as she speaks:
Before this becomes a complete misinterpretation of intent, I’d like to say that I am not averse to images of slavery. They do not embarrass or fatigue me. I supported Roots. Watched all seven volumes. My mother made me. I think I was 9. Her idea of summer vacation. I read Jubilee. The freedom papers of Frederick Douglass. The slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Harriet Jacobs. I have seen 12 Years a Slave, Slave Play, The Slave, another play — not the same, Birth of a Nation, The Birth of a Nation — very different movies, Father Comes Home from the Wars, An Octoroon, Harriet, Underground, Underground Railroad, Amistad, Sankofa, Beloved, Unchained Memories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Glory and even Django Unchained, though there are serious debates to be had over the qualifications of that last one. I have visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, the slavery Human Zoo in Moscow — yes, you heard that right, they had a human zoo, the Middle Passage Exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit — some children on a field trip threw up on a model of the slave ship — understandably — it’s a very convincing diorama, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati — an elderly man with dementia, no doubt, mistook our tour guide for Harriet Tubman. I’ve visited the African Burial Grounds in Manhattan, the Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., and walked the shores of Ghana where the slave castles are still standing. I even discuss the impact of slavery in my comparative politics classes. There is nothing slavery that is off-limits for me.
Sandra can barely catch her breath in her personal life, which she guards closely. As she attempts to hold herself together in the wake of a personal devastation I won’t spoil here, everyone around her has opinions about what she should be doing for them — her student Malik (Elijah Jones) sees conspiracy against him as Sandra prods him toward excellence. Her colleague Jade (Andrea Patterson) sees malignancy afoot because Sandra is a more circumspect politician than she is when it comes to Black advancement and on-campus advocacy. And her white assistant Candice (Kenzie Ross) is well-meaning but clueless, filled with reverence for the professor and her scholarship, but unable to offer, or anticipate, the sort of support Sandra might need in the face of a spectacular insult.
Sara, too, is battling assumptions and dangers as she tries to obtain her freedom during the country’s bloody battle over slavery. There’s her brother Abner (played by Jones), who ran away to join the Union Army, but who has returned, reluctantly aiding his more daring sister in her attempts at espionage. Then there’s LuAnne (Patterson), who has extracted a bit of status within the big house as Master’s favorite nighttime company and is jealously guarding it. And there’s Missy Sue (Ross), the daughter of Master, who grew up with Sara as her attendant and captive playmate. Like so many captors, Missy Sue wants to believe that Sara’s amiability comes from genuine affection as opposed to forced deference.
The coup Morisseau achieves with staging these dynamics is that Confederates is filled with moments of laughter, both because of the playwright’s deftness with words and because of the actors who bring them to life. Aided by the work of Ari Fulton’s costume design, which uses color as a way to tell stories about the allegiances and psychological transformations of the characters, Morisseau spins a treatise on the slings and arrows withstood by pathbreaking Black women. Fulton’s choices are central to the play’s economy — 90 swift minutes, no intermission — and its ability to shift quickly between micro and macroaggressions. Morisseau dedicated Confederates to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Melissa Harris-Perry. It is a play that feels smartly attuned to this era of history, including the ascension of Ketanji Brown Jackson to Supreme Court justice, and the ugly nastiness of the confirmation hearings it took to put her there.
Wherever you go as a high-achieving American Black woman, there are confederates. The trick is figuring out which kind.