Off-Broadway Review: CONFEDERATES (Signature Theatre)

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by Gregory Fletcher on April 6, 2022

in Theater-New York


Elijah Jones and Kristolyn Lloyd

I’ve noticed “Permission for Engagement” becoming a recent trend in new productions by Black female playwrights. There is a notice in the Playbill inviting the audience to let go and respond when inspired, as “theatre can be church for some of us” (“Us” meaning Black churchgoers, I guess). While patrons are encouraged to testify with “um hmmms,” “Uhn uhnnns,” “Oh hell no,” or “amen,” the audience members — both Black and White on the night I attended Dominique Morisseau’s new play, Confederates didn’t feel moved to “join with the village.” (Not that this play deserved it, but it makes one wonder if the day will come when viewers are invited to throw dried figs or oyster shells at the stage — hey, it happened at The Old Globe in Shakespeare’s day).

Kenzie Ross and Michelle Wilson

Ms. Morisseau also notes that navigating “systemic fuckeries” can be both painful and funny. There are some slight attempts at humor, but the play didn’t make me laugh as much as experience pain. Indeed, as the show examines that both slavery and institutional racism are not just relevant to Black and White, or male and female, I sat there questioning if we can ever be unshackled from this ongoing problem.

Kristolyn Lloyd and Kenzie Ross

At Signature Theatre, Michelle Wilson plays Sandra, a tenured professor at a modern-day private university, whose office door has been defaced with her face pasted onto a historic photograph of an enslaved African wet nurse breastfeeding a white baby. Finding the responsible confederate fuels the play into action. Is it her white female student assistant? One of the six black students on campus? Or the only other black faculty member up for tenure? Tension fills every scene as prickly suspicions abound.

Andrea Patterson and Michelle Wilson

Running parallel to the contemporary storyline is another that jumps back in time to a Confederate state in the Civil War, where Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd) is an enslaved rebel turned Union spy (Elijah Jones plays Sara’s soldier brother and Andrea Patterson another slave with whom Sara has some juicy exchanges). Equaling frustrating as the contemporary timeline is the continued suspicion, distrust, and manipulation between characters, including the White daughter of Sara’s captor (Kenzie Ross).

Kristolyn Lloyd, Elijah Jones and Andrea Patterson

The time-jumps don’t have the power of Tom Stoppard or J.B. Priestly, but as directed by Stori Ayers with a steady hand, the leaps through time offer theatrical fun in Ari Fulton‘s quick-change costume design and Nikiya Mathis‘s wigs, not to mention the three actors who play characters in both time zones. Perhaps that is why I am at odds — the play works better theatrically than, at 90 minutes, dramaturgically.

Kristolyn Lloyd and Elijah Jones

For a production dedicated to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and other Black women freedom fighters, I wanted to applaud and support this exploration, even as a curtain call wasn’t granted either for celebration or gratitude. But it’s tough when there is little hope offered, when that was the point. The only instance was in the closing, silent moment when Sara and Sandra moved toward one other in awe. Prior to this closing embrace, I found myself discouraged and unfulfilled.

Michelle Wilson

photos by Monique Carboni

Kristolyn Lloyd

Signature Theatre
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 W 42nd St
ends on April 24, 2022
for tickets, call (212) 244-7529 or visit Signature

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